Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Can you keep a secret...?"

So can I.


One of the things that makes people suspicious of Freemasonry is its reputation of being a "secret organization". If Freemasonry is a secret organization, it's not very good at it. Its lodges are identified with signage. Its members wear rings, hats, jackets, and other paraphernalia bearing the symbol of the fraternity, and they often drive cars bearing the same. They take part in Christmas parades, circuses, public fundraisers and other public activities. Its members are known to the public. Websites like this one publish details of their philosophy.

In short, as an organization, Freemasonry is rather open.

Freemasons, however, do keep certain secrets that are shared only with other members of the fraternity. It's a practice that started in antiquity, but there are practical reasons we maintain the custom to the present day.


There's nothing nefarious about keeping a secret. Everybody keeps secrets. You don't publicize your bank account and the PIN that secures it. There are locks on your home and on your car. Here in the United States you have Constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure, and your privacy is recognized as a basic right. Those things that are of great value to you are the things that you personally endeavor to keep most secret. No one is suspicious of you for doing so. I presume that you are not suspicious of others for doing the same.

The FBI aggressively combats
corporate espionage (link)
Commercial institutions have other secrets. Valuables in safes and confidential finances, yes; but also trade secrets that are protected by custom and law. The Colonel's 11 herbs and spices. A tire manufacturer's rubber formulation. Perhaps it would surprise you to learn that we give trade secrets even more legal protection than we do patents and copyrights. Stealing a trade secret can land you in jail for industrial espionage; and unlike a patent, a trade secret can never expire. Yet no one is suspicious of an outstanding chef for having a "secret recipe".

This poster was used in
WWII to remind people
of the virtue of secrecy.
As a country, we have vital secrets that we entrust to certain individuals. The owners of those secrets... the citizens of the nation... do not even know what they are. These include things like military secrets; troop deployments and capability, or our nuclear bomb codes. Here, the higher the value of the secret, the greater the level of trust we place in those to whom they are entrusted. In fact, this is such commonplace knowledge that we have codified levels of trust that we call "security clearance". We classify information as "confidential", "secret" or "top secret", and above top secret we continue with "sensitive compartmented information". We legally secure information with oaths and non-disclosure agreements. Even in personal interactions we do the same... we often say, "swear you won't tell anyone!" before giving over the secret. The recipient may offer to undergo frightening consequences for failure, crossing his heart and HOPING to DIE.

Of course he doesn't really hope to die. He's simply expressing the depth of his sincerity; the trials that he would willingly undertake rather than betray the trust placed in him.

These things are simply true at every level of society:
  • We value those things we keep secret.
  • We entrust them to people we find trustworthy.
  • The more trustworthy the person, the more important the secret he may maintain.
  • The ability to maintain a secret is a virtue.
In fact, a person's trustworthiness is both demonstrated and measured by the ability to keep the secrets entrusted to him. We would have no confidence whatsoever in the soldier who could not keep these secrets inviolate. How long do you suppose a general would keep his position if in the name of "openness" and "transparency" he were to publish our nuclear launch codes?

And that gives us a bit of a catch-22... 
We give our secrets only to those we trust, but their trustworthiness is only proven by their ability to keep a secret.
Clearly, someone must take the first step.


The catch-22 I described has always been recognized. In Freemasonry we deal with it with a graduated series of "degrees". At each degree the candidate is given some bit of new knowledge. For the purpose of this test, it doesn't really matter what that piece of knowledge is. The important part is keeping it inviolate. By this means he demonstrates his trustworthiness to receive more information should circumstances require candor and confidentiality. Every Master Mason has demonstrated this, as have those who have progressed further in appellate bodies like the Shrine, and York and Scottish Rites.

"Can you keep a secret...?" is a question I never have to ask of my Masonic brethren.

Beyond those means of recognition... signs and tokens, such as the highly-publicized "secret handshakes"... and those secrets that Masons may entrust to one another in fraternal confidence, there is surprisingly little of Freemasonry that is truly secret. Our Constitution and Code is published in plain-text.  It contains the organizational structure and by-laws of the fraternity; detailed explanations of the various degrees; explanations of the various symbols used in Freemasonry which are the tools of a Freemason, to remind him of certain virtues and truths; and even certain rituals such as funeral rites. None of that is secret.

That we we have secrets is also not a secret, and I'd like you to ponder this for a moment. After all, we could avoid the entire issue of public distrust by any number of techniques such as disavowing all secret signs and tokens. But our aim is not duplicity, it's virtue. It's relatively effortless to keep a secret of which no one else is aware. But when others are aware of the existence of that secret, the task is greatly multiplied, for then there is outside pressure to reveal it. Some of that pressure is from the very distrust aimed at Freemasonry. The true measure of a man includes his ability to keep a trust even though the world exhorts him to reveal it, and even though his refusal may turn public opinion against him.

And there is one thing that the non-Mason should know about Masonic secrecy... we are charged to act "upon the square" not just with other Freemasons, but "with all mankind". If a man wears a Masonic ring, his trustworthiness is not confined to the walls of a Masonic lodge, nor to the circle of his fraternity. Should he accept a trust, he will keep it.

It's well known that Freemasonry seeks to instill in its members timeless lessons of morality and virtue. That these virtues should include the proper nature, value, and application of confidentiality should be no surprise.

No comments:

Post a Comment