THE SYMBOLISM OF THE SQUARE AND COMPASSES
You were introduced to the square and compasses very
early in your Masonic career in fact they were among the first items discussed
on your night of Initiation. They are in evidence throughout all Lodge
meetings, and it is therefore desirable that you should have a ready
understanding of their Masonic significance.
The dictionary defines "emblem" as a symbol,
while "symbol" is an emblem, but typifying a special quality of
concept. It adds that a symbol implies a transfer of meaning from the physical
emblem to an idea by means of an allegory or metaphor.
This is not confusing when you consider that the letters
of the alphabet are symbols and when combined into words they convey all kinds
of meanings to you, the amount depending upon your knowledge. They convey
meanings because you recognise them and can associate them with understandable
facts and experiences. Until this is so, the meanings are hidden: if you
cannot read, the messages are lost.
So it is in Freemasonry, which is illustrated by
symbols. The symbols of Masonry are used to reveal its meanings, not to
conceal them but they will remain concealed until one can read the symbols,
and understand them, and can recognise and interpret the message contained in
So when we talk of the symbolism of an emblem we are
looking for the metaphor of transferred meaning associated with it.
The square, the compasses, and the square and compasses
combined have long been accepted as Masonic symbols to teach Masons to
"square their actions and to keep them within due bounds". The fact
that these emblems enjoy universal recognition of what they stand for was
proved in a celebrated court case in the USA in the 19th Century when it was
ruled that the sign of the square belonged exclusively to Freemasonry.
Let us look at the two parts separately. The square as a
tool of operative masons was used to test the accuracy of the sides of a
stone; to prove that they were squares with regard to the other sides, and
that all angles were identical. It thus acted as a standard from which the
stones were judged as being fit or otherwise for the building.
The square has two meanings - the angle of 90°, the
fourth part of a circle, and the two-armed implement containing an angle of 90°.
It has been used symbolically for a long time. To the Chinese in 2500 BC
"square" meant honest and straightforward. By the 4th Century BC
Mencius taught that all men must apply the square figuratively to their lives
if they would walk in the straight paths of wisdom and keep within the bounds
of honour and virtue.
Note, too, that nowhere in nature is a perfect square to
be found. It must be made by man working with materials - wood, stone, metals
- provided by nature. From this we infer that man must work with the GAOTU to
secure the bounty He bestows upon His creatures.
In Masonry the square is a symbol of morality and is
presented as one of the Great Lights, a Working Tool, and the emblem of the
WM. It inculcates the principle of morality, honesty and truthfulness, and
points out our duty to our neighbour, to all Mankind, to the Craft.
The compasses were used by operative masons to mark out
the ground from the scaled plans of the intended structure. This instrument,
working with one point in the centre, describes the circumference of a circle,
thus limiting an area to the part enclosed. In the same way the compasses
remind us that in His unerring and impartial justice, God has defined the
limits of good and evil, and that we shall be rewarded or punished according
to the way we have kept within this circumference or gone beyond it.
The symbolism of the compasses thus supplements the
inner light we obtain from the V.S.L. by pointing out the duty we owe to
ourselves - the duty of keeping our desires within due bounds, and of
circumscribing our passions and prejudices. Without this voluntary
restriction, this practice of self-discipline, we cannot be fully free.
The square and compasses, then, refer to a Mason's duty
to the Craft and to himself, a symbol of Brotherhood appropriate to the ideals
of Masonry. This combination is very old, too, as the Chinese for many years
BC used the square and compasses to suggest order, regularity and propriety.
The position of the square and compasses on the VSL has
special significance now, connected with the progress of the candidate through
the degrees. However, during the 18th Century the points of the compasses and
the ends of the arms of the square were directed away from the Master toward
the candidate to indicate that he was included in the body of Freemasonry.
From the symbolism of the square and compasses we can
learn the way to live. The standard of life, or the standard of living, cannot
be measured in terms of material things like cars, TV sets and other technical
devices, excellent though they are. They are merely aids to living. The real
standard is measured in terms of intangible factors; obligation to the family
and friends, widening to concern for ones neighbour, to the acceptance of
responsibility toward the weak - welfare of the community in place of gain for
self. This is what we understand by morality and this is what we practice when
we act upon the square.
As Joseph Fort Newton says,
So we as Masons know that the square and compasses are
not just abstract symbols, but through their symbolism they show us that every
day, no matter with whom we are or where we are, we should "Square our
actions and keep them within due bounds".
Copyright © 1872 -
2004, Eureka Lodge A.F. & A.M., No 283, G.R.C. Belleville, Ontario.
Copyright © 1872 - 2004, Eureka Lodge A.F. & A.M., No 283, G.R.C. Belleville, Ontario.