Recently (late 2019) the new book of Fabio Venzi was published by Lewis Masonic. It is called The Last Heresy and is about the relation between the Catholic Church and Freemasonry. It is an historical book and nothing like the previous two books that were published by the same publisher. It did make me go back to these two titles and since I was noting quotes, I figured I could just turn that into some sort of article that may give you an idea of the ideas of this Traditionalistic Italian Freemason who has been the Grandmaster of the Regulier Grand Lodge of Italy since 2001.
In the two books, Studies On Traditional Freemasonry (2013) and Freemasonry, The Esoteric Tradition (2016), Venzi refers to René Guénon, but also to his more controversial fellow countryman Julius Evola.
Guénon was initially of the opinion that Freemasonry is a genuine Western initiatic organisation. Later in his life he was no longer so sure about that. Venzi seems to be more hopeful.
I would moreover like to point out that Freemasonry, in addition to representing a “form” of Tradition, the last in a temporal order, likewise constitutes a living Tradition that is still in its prime. By this I mean that Freemasonry, which in my opinion has still not completed its full esoteric-initiatic development, interrupted frequently by adversary historical events, is still capable of terminating the project, and rediscovering its esotericism to propose it again with renewed vigour. This may indeed lead to unexpected results.
The current social unrest, the identity crisis that continually challenges the individual in a society lacking a Centre, provide a glimpse into the enormous potential available to Freemasonry, but on condition that its true initiatic component is returned to the light and its possibilities exploited in full.
Studies p. 208
But, since Venzi’s writing style sometimes reminds of that of Guénon, strict and assertive, let me also give you a quote that many contemporary Freemasons wil disagree with.
The founders of the Masonic school of thought maintained that a philosophically appropriate notion of God should necessarily imply the principle of His absolute transcendence. However, to assign Theist, Deist or Pantheist connotations to the Great Architect of the Universe would imply not only a lack of understanding of the aims of the Masonic initiatic pathway, but would likewise create a dangerous and embarrassing state of confusion.
Studies p 123
If Freemasonry is initiatic, it must be esoteric, or actually…
With regard to the relationship between esotericism and Freemasonry, I should start by saying that, in my opinion, to define the Masonic initiate pathway as ‘esoteric’ would be purely pleonastic, although this axiom is far too frequently at the centre of debate. it is even more serious that this occurs not only in the myriad of frequently confused pamphlets circulating on Freemasonry, the also in important studies of esotericism, in which a presumed absence of esoteric content is highlighted particularly for the first Three Degrees of Freemasonry.
Esoteric Tradition p. 42
Anyway, Venzi is of the opinion that also “craft Freemasonry” (the first three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason, are indeed esoteric and he is annoyed by scholars who say otherwise. Not the least scholars too deny esoteric content in the first three degrees, Antoine Faivre, Pierre Riffard and Jean-Paul Corsetti. The latter he quotes stating: ” The English Freemasonry is scarcely esoteric, only becoming so from the Third Degree of Master Mason, which was included in 1730 and what not known to Anderson.” (Esoteric Tradition p. 43.)
Venzi wholeheartedly disagrees.
It is now mandatory to ask ourselves, where does this mistaken perception of English Freemasonry derive from? Which authors, and in particular, which rituals, have the scholars addressed in forming their opinions? The issue is not easy to solve, and is particularly inexplicable in view of the fact that both Faivre and Riffard in their writings refer to major esotericists such as René Guénon and Oswald Wirth who however, as I shall reveal subsequently, with regard to the same issue, have expressed views in open contrast to those of Riffard and Faivre.
The opinion conveyed by the renowned French esotericist Guénon on the High degrees could not be clearer:
“Masonic initiation comprises three successive phases, and there can thus be only three grades, representing these three phases; from this it would seem to follow that the system of high grades are completely useless, at least in theory, since in their entirety the rituals of the three symbolic grades describe the complete cycle of initiation. However, since Masonic initiation is in fact symbolic, it produces Masons who are only symbols of true Masons, simply outlining for them the course of the steps they must take in order to arrive at real initiation. It is this goal that, at least originally, was the aim of the various systems of high grades, which seem to have been instituted precisely in order to realise in practice the Great Work that symbolic Masonry teaches in theory.
It must be recognided [sic], however, that very few of these systems actually achieve their proposed goal; in most cases, one meets with points of incoherence, lacunae, and superfluities, and the initiatic value of certain rituals appears quite meagre, especially when compared to that of the symbolic grades. These failings are all the more conspicuous the greater number of degrees the system contains; and if such is already the case with the Scottish Rites of 25 and 33 degrees, what of those Rites having 90,97 or even 120 degrees? This multiplicity of degrees is all the more useless in that one is obliged to confer them successively.”
Esoteric Tradition p. 43/4
Venzi has interesting things to say about symbolism. Referring to the French anthropologist Gilbert Durant he says: “that the main virtue of the symbol is to ensure the presence of transcendence within the personal mystery” (Studies p. 145).
Therefor he finds it safe to state: “Consequently, it follows that in traditional societies symbols constitute a privileged tool of higher Knowledge that operates in the metaphysical and transcendent dimension of the ‘sacred’.”
It should not however be overlooked that symbols do not in themselves have any sacred value, nor any magical powers, otherwise they would be transformed into totems to be worshipped, sacred objects; in the context of a true esoteric knowledge, symbols are conversely a means of reflection, of knowledge, intellect, i.e. of gnosis, devoid of any magical powers or univocal codified or dogmatic significance.
Studies p. 145
In achieving this outcome, the superiority of symbolism over discursive reason is evident; only symbolism provides an appropriate means for obtaining and imparting a higher religious and metaphysical Truth. Symbolism succeeds where Philosophy cannot even hope to prevail, writes Julius Evola: “Philosophy is both subalternate to and the opposite of symbolism. Its form of expression is the language which is essentially analytical, whilst symbolism is synthetic. The language is discursive in the same way as human reasoning. On the contrary symbolism is intuitive. For these characters it is incomparably better suited than language for use of a vehicle for super-rational intellectual intuition, and is the best means of expression for all forms of initiatic teachings. Symbolism is the support of transcendent intuition. Conversely, philosophy is a type of discursive thought, it is exclusively rational and constitutes an already quite singular use of reason, as proof of the existence of science.” Evola moreover uses the example of the beautiful symbolism of the “stone” which gives rise to an unconditioned consciousness: “The ‘stone’ used as the matrix is a symbol of the body. The body is the substrate of the cosmic yearning and all that underlies the humid substance; under the ‘waters’ therefore lie a set of time those stages and faculties of men- whether they are termed ‘spiritual’ or not — that in a bodily substrate find their condition or something essential they are associated with. To undergo initiation is to free oneself of the ‘stone’ and achieve a state of awareness no longer conditioned by a link to the bodily vehicle.“
Symbolism, therefore, a tool rejected or overlooked by the modem spirit is for the conveying of Truths that belong to the order or pure intellect. As human nature is not purely intellectual, it necessarily has to rely on a sensitive foundation in order to reach the higher levels, and in this symbolism represents the most appropriate means of satisfying man’s intellectual needs. Where language is an analytical and discursive means, in the same way as reason for which it serves as a tool, symbolism, on the contrary, is substantially synthetic and, for this reason, intuitive. The properties symbolism thus underline its appropriateness in acting as a base for intellectual intuition, as possesses an ontological reality far beyond any form of mental construct. As underlined by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “man does not make symbols: he is transformed by them.”
Studies p. 144
The following quote makes a bridge to the next subject.
Which symbols or allegories best portray the influence of Neoplatonist philososophy on Masonic thought? The documents most suited to demonstrating the analogies between Neoplatonist and Masonic principles are undeniably the rituals themselves.
Studies p. 190
History of Freemasonry and the introduction of esotericism
Venzi has interesting ideas about how esotericism found its way into Freemasonry.
It is an acknowledged fact that in its Medieval form Freemasonry was a predominantly practical, or “operative” movement; there was no particular emphasis on philosophical and esoteric issues following its creation during the mid-seventeenth century, in what I would define as “accepted” Freemasonry. Indeed, it is only in the late eighteenth-century Masonic rituals that we start to observe the first traces of what may be defined as true Masonic initiatic philosophy, and the emergence of a “speculative” Freemasonry.
Studies p. 190
According there is a line in the old catechisms and other “Old Charges” from before the foundation of the first Grand Lodge of England in 1717, but he says that only in the second half of the 18th century the rituals, symbolism and therewith the initiatic character of Freemasonry was fully developped.
As we saw it were neoplatonist ideas that Venzi sees as the basis of Masonic esotericism. How did these find their way into Freemasonry? Venzi points to the “Cambridge Platonists”, a group of scholars at the Cambridge University who were interested in Alchemy, Hermetism and similar subjects.
Elias Ashmole, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were all scientists, members of the Royal Society who continued to practise Alchemy side by side with the experimental methods applied by modern science.
Studies p. 190
[Isaac Newton] was seeking an original Truth to integrate into theories of the new physics in an attempt to avoid the risk, feared by the Cambridge Platonists, of an atheistic degradation in mechanism.
Studies p. 190
He also quotes John Maynard Keynes who said that: “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians” (Studies p. 190).
This evolution has suggested that the “speculative” form of Freemasonry should be viewed essentially as the evolution of the “Accepted” Freemasonry, in my opinion, inspired and permeated by the Neoplatonist thought of the School of Cambridge, and was accordingly viewed as an independent and separate entity with a specific character of high originality.
Briefly, we may conclude that towards the middle of the seventeenth century in England, a group of men, zealous upholders of Neoplatonism, Esotericism, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism, decided to borrow the “symbols” adopted by Medieval stonemasons. with the initial aim of diffusing a system of moral and ethical principles. They aimed in this way to create a singular conception of man and thus gave rise to Freemasonry as we know it today. Subsequently, thanks to the influences already mentioned previously (Mystery societies and Hermeticism) and Neoplatonism this would be transformed (or attempt to be transformed) into a full-blown “Initiatic Order”.
Studies p. 122
Even though he does not say so specifically, it seems that Venzi suggests that there was a current coming from (or inspired by) “operative” Masonry and a current with interest in esotericism and these two currents start to mingle giving birth to what we know as Freemasonry today.
An often heard idea is that Freemasonry developed in the Age of Enlightenment, a current that Venzi calls “Illuminism”. Venzi does not agree with the assumption though.
The association of several eminent personalities from the scientific world with Freemasonry dining the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, essentially therefore during its transformation from the “accepted” to the “speculative” form of the movement, has contributed towards creating the false myth of a parallelism between Freemasonry, science and Illuminism. It should first be underlined how the above association failed to produce a significant influence, and indeed. Masonic rituals, with their esoteric-metaphysical connotations, passed through the climate of Illuminism practically intact in both essence and conception. Indeed, despite the initiation of numerous scientists into Freemasonry, I am of the opinion that no intrinsic relationship or ideological influence or link, other than the fact that both are inspired by a spirit of search and knowledge, has ever existed between modern science and Freemasonry. The purported ideological proximity between Freemasonry and Illuminism—and the modern science it gave rise to—should not be taken for granted. Indeed. as I have previously written, I do not believe that Freemasonry developed as an expression of Illuministic thought and philosophy, but rather that it sprang from Neo-Platonist thought and is therefore far removed from eighteenth-century empiricism and rationalism, which are clearly incompatible with the transcendent and metaphysical beliefs of Freemasonry.
Studies p. 183
All in all we here have an interesting thinker swiming against the stream and outlining uncommon (unpopular) ideas. His first two books that were published by Lewis Masonic (both reviewed of course) make very interesting reads and I hope that the above may inspire some of you to buy them.
At the time of writing (March 2020) the first is avaible from Amazon, but not from the publisher and the second just the other way around.