Saturday, February 26, 2011

Planner of DC Street Layout,
Pierre L’Enfant,
Really Was a Mason!

For a number of years, the more hysterical Masonic-related conspiracy theorists have made the claim that the layout of the streets of Washington, DC, reveals Masonic symbols, including symbols that supposedly indicate devil worship. Also for many years, Masonic historians and authors have indicated that there was no evidence that the designer of this layout, Pierre L’Enfant, was even a Freemason. (I have made this claim myself.)

We were all wrong. L’Enfant was a Freemason, albeit in a very limited sense.

The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, publishes a bimonthly magazine, the Scottish Rite Journal. The March-April 2011 issue carries an article on pp. 10-12 by Right Worshipful Brother Pierre F. de Ravel d’Esclapon, who holds the 32° in the Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. (I know Sublime Prince de Ravel d’Esclapon as a Past Master of the American Lodge of Research, the oldest currently functioning American research lodge, of which I have the honor to be a full member. Plug: corresponding members are always welcome.) This article is titled “The Masonic Career of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant,” and it details the findings of the author while the author was researching the early history of New York City’s Holland Lodge No. 8 F&AM. (Holland Lodge, which was chartered in 1787, has had such distinguished members as General von Steuben and Commodore Perry; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was raised a Master Mason in Holland Lodge in 1911.)

In Holland Lodge records, the article’s author discovered that Major Pierre L’Enfant was initiated an Entered Apprentice in Holland Lodge on April 17th, 1789, during the same month in which brother George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States, in New York City. As noted in the article, L’Enfant had been in New York City since the preceding year, as he supervised renovations to Federal Hall, where the inauguration was to take place.

There is much more fascinating information in this article, which I recommend for your perusal. Regretably, as of this writing, the website of the Scottish Rite Journal has not been updated to display the March-April issue (only fair, since, after all, we are still in February). However, I would guess that in just a few days it will be possible to see this fascinating article online. (Incidentally, individual copies of this issue are available for US$3 each, and subscriptions within the US are US$15 annually, domestic checks only, sent to Scottish Rite Journal, 1733 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009-3103. And, no, I don’t make a dime off of that plug. It’s just a great magazine.) Brother de Ravel d’Esclapon is to be commended for his discovery, and his excellent report.

So where does that leave us with regard to the idea that L’Enfant embedded Masonic symbols, supposedly including satanic symbols, in the street layout of Washington, DC? This notion is entirely rubbish, every bit as much as before. Consider:

  • Any unbiased observer of L’Enfant’s plan (shown in the illustration above) will see that L’Enfant planned his layout as a right-angled grid, overlaid by a pattern of plazas, from each of which avenues radiated like spokes from a wheel’s hub. With such a pattern, it is inevitable that diagonal angles will be formed. Masonic symbolism (such as the square and compasses) are composed of diagonal angles, so one can see Masonic symbolism like this in the street layout of DC if one really wants to. However, this is much like seeing menacing shapes in cloud formations or Rorschach inkblots. (And I speak as one who first administered the Rorschach in 1987. People see what they want to see in neutral stimuli, folks.)

  • Again, five-pointed stars will inevitably be formed by a hubs-and-spokes pattern. Some of these stars will point downward. However, the downward-directed five-pointed star only took on a sinister connotation in the 19th century, well after L’Enfant’s time, in the writings of the French esotericist Eliphas Levi. Even if L’Enfant had deliberately been trying to create the shape of a downward-directed five-pointed star, that shape had no connection to evil during his lifetime.

  • The article in the Scottish Rite Journal suggests that L’Enfant never received the second or third degrees of Freemasonry. Thus, he did not have exposure as an initiate even to the majority of the symbols of the basic Blue Lodge of Freemasonry. One would expect that symbols of satanic worship, if they existed within Blue Lodge Freemasonry at all, would be reserved for the famous “third degree.” However, apparently, L’Enfant never received that degree.

The Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon has some excellent on-line articles on these subjects. One is an article on the pentagram as a symbol throughout history. Another is this article on the symbolism supposedly to be found in the street layouts of DC (an article which can only be faulted in its claim, now obsolete, that there was no evidence that L’Enfant was a Mason).

Memo to Masonic-related conspiracy theorists: Please. Enough with the idea of Masonic symbolism in the streets of Washington, DC, already. Come up with something new and original.
Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

[The image of Pierre L’Enfant’s layout of Washington, DC, was obtained through Wikipedia, and is in the public domain.]

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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.]