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THE MASONIC LADDER AND THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING

Posted by Sir Knight Nash on July 20, 2014 at 5:55 PM

THE MASONIC LADDER AND THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING

 

by Bro. William Steve Burkle KT, 32°, KCRBE

 

Alpha Lodge No. 116, Grand Lodge of New Jersey Philo Lodge No. 243, South River, New Jersey SciotoLodge No. 6, Chillicothe, Ohio.

 

This paper examines the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic Ladder and will develop the thesis that the Masonic Ladder's esoteric meaning derives from an ancientconcept dealing with thehierarchal ordering ofthe universe known as the Great Chain of Being . This ordering was so ingrained in the cultural, political, and theological structure of society that it was accepted as a matter of absolutefact at least until thelate1800's or early 1900's. This paper will discuss the concept of the Great Chain of Being, will examine its historical basis, and will explain how the esotericsymbolism of the Masonic ladder is related to this concept.

 

The Masonic ladder is a unique symbol in Freemasonry in that its symbolic allusion

 

may be traced directly to the Bible (Genesis 28: 10-22)[i]. To my knowledge no other

 

Masonic symbol is thus distinguished. This Bible verse ties the symbol to the story of Jacob,

 

and thereby establishes that the symbolism of the Masonic Ladder is identical to that of

 

Jacob’s ladder. The symbol of the Masonic Ladder figures prominently in the both Entered

 

Apprentice Degree and the Degrees of York Rite Masonry, and is one of the few Masonic

 

symbols which vary in its depiction depending upon the degree system in which it appears.

 

It is also interesting that the symbolism of the ladder is linguistically similar to another

 

prominent Masonic symbol, namely the “Winding Staircase”, however the explanations

 

provided in the degree lectures for these two symbols are distinctly different. As with all

 

Masonic symbols, the Masonic ladder has a much deeper esoteric symbolism which

 

underlies the literal (exoteric) meaning provided in the degree lectures.

 

This paper examines the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic Ladder and will

 

develop the thesis that the Masonic Ladder’s esoteric meaning derives from an ancient

 

concept dealing with the hierarchal ordering of the universe known as the Great Chain of

 

Being[ii]. This ordering was so ingrained in the cultural, political, and theological structure of

 

society that it was accepted as a matter of absolute fact at least until the late1800’s or early

 

1900’s. In many instances this powerful notion remains with us today. This paper will

 

discuss the concept of the Great Chain of Being, will examine its historical basis, and will

 

explain how the esoteric symbolism of the Masonic ladder is related to this concept.

 

The Masonic Ladder

 

The Masonic ladder is believed[iii] to

 

have been introduced into Masonic

 

ritual by Dunckerly in 1776, having

 

purportedly been borrowed from

 

ancient Hermetic tradition. Other

 

accounts believe the introduction of

 

the Masonic Ladder to have been as

 

early as 1732 (attributed to Matin

 

Clare) or 1760[iv] based upon an

 

image of the Ladder found on a

 

trestle board inscribed with this date.

 

Other accounts indicate the symbol

 

appeared in a Masonic context as

 

late[v] as 1819 as a figure or symbol

 

on a certificate in which the ladder is

 

depicted as resting upon the VSL,

 

reaching upwards towards the

 

heavens. A version of this symbol is

 

shown in Figure 1 in a Masonic

 

tracing board image attributed to

 

Lady Frieda Harris (1877 - 1962).

 

The number of rungs (rounds) found on the Masonic ladder has varied over time;

 

however, either three or seven rungs are most common. Historically[vi], the ladder is closely

 

associated with Mithraic, kabalistic, and numerous other mystery traditions.

 

The exoteric (literal) meaning attributed to the symbol of the Ladder in the EA

 

degree lecture is that the three rungs in the ladder represent the Cardinal virtues[vii] of Faith,

 

Hope, and Charity often called the “theological virtues”. There is also another explanation

 

which posits that the three rungs allude to Youth, Manhood, and Old Age. Versions of the

 

lecture in which the ladder is shown with seven rungs add the four additional Cardinal

 

virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice). In some cases the rails of the

 

ladder are included in the symbolism[viii]. However, just as with the Biblical story of Jacob’s

 

ladder, there is deeper meaning in the symbolism than is apparent from the explanation

 

given in the lecture.

 

For example, Bro. W.L. Wilmhurst in a discussion of the ladder and the instruction

 

once given during the Degree Lecture in his classic text The Masonic Initiation, notes[ix]

 

that:

 

“They were taught of the different levels and graduations of the Universe-some of them

 

material and some ethereal,-the planes and sub-planes of it, upon which the great scheme

 

is being carried out ; which levels and planes, all progressively linked together, constitute as

 

it were one vast ladder of many rounds, staves, or rungs …”

 

Wilmhurst further elaborates that

 

“Jacob's vision and ladder, therefore, exemplify the attainment of Initiation, the expansion of

 

consciousness that comes when the Light of the centre is found…”

 

Brother Wilmhurst’s comments are absolutely accurate; there is an esoteric meaning

 

associated with the symbol of the Masonic Ladder which relates not to the virtues, but

 

rather to cosmology and spiritual evolution.

 

Esoteric Meaning

 

Ladder symbolism is not unique to Christian doctrine; in fact its use supersedes

 

Christianity. Table 1 provides a summary of common ladder symbolism used by divergent

 

cultures[x]. Note that in each of the cultures listed four levels of being are represented which

 

correspond[xi] to Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit in the microcosm, and to the Infinite, Celestial,

 

Intermediate, and Terrestrial in the macrocosm. This four-fold similarity is consistent with

 

the original concept of the Great Chain of Being as conceived by Plato.

 

1 - A Summary of Divergent Cultures Having Similar Ladder Symbolism (after Wilbur)[xii]

 

Christianity Judaism Islamist

 

Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm

 

Godhead Spirit Emancipation Neshamah Sovereign Power Qalb

 

God Soul Creation Ruah Domination Ruh

 

Angels Mind Formation Nefesh Dominion Nafs

 

Nature Body Action Body Kingdom Jinn

 

Chinese Buddhism Hinduism

 

Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm Macrocosm Microcosm

 

Unspeakable(Tao) Shen Nirvana Buddha NirgunaBrahman Turiya (Atman)

 

Heaven (T’ien) Ling Bodhisattvas Subtle Mind Saguna Brahman Causal Body

 

Heaven/Earth Hsin Apsaras Gross Mind Devas in Lokas Subtle Body

 

10,000 Things Shen Nirmanakaya Five Senses Prakriti Gross Body

 

Modern anthropologists generally concur that the commonality of symbolism of this

 

sort is the result of “diffusionism” and “acculturation”. Diffusionism may be simply

 

defined[xiii] as the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places usually

 

through migration, trade, war, or other contact. Acculturation[xiv] is considered to be those

 

gradual changes purposefully produced in a given culture because of the influence of

 

another politically dominant culture, in which the two cultures become similar as the end

 

result.

 

There are also numerous examples in which a seven-fold hierarchical symbolism is

 

found widely distributed among variant cultures. Table 2 provides an example of one such

 

complex (three parallel meanings) seven tier symbolism which was used in the cult of

 

Mithraicism[xv].

 

2 – Structure of Seven-fold Mithraic Symbolism

 

Chain of Being in Mithraism

 

7 Gold Sun Truth

 

6 Silver Moon Mansion of the Blessed

 

5 Iron Mars World of Births

 

4 Tin Jupiter Middle World

 

3 Copper Venus Heaven

 

2 Quicksilver Mercury World of Pre-Existence

 

1 Lead Saturn First World

 

Of those traditions displaying ladder symbolism, that which is of particular interest in

 

Freemasonry is the Kabalistic representation of the ladder provided by the Tree of Life glyph.

 

Figure 2 illustrates the Tree of Life rendered as a seven-run ladder. The Kabalistic Tree of

 

Life is comprised of three pillars. Each of these pillars contains spheres or “Sephira” (plural:

 

Sephiroth) which are considered to be “emanations" of God. These spheres are connected

 

by pathways. The Sephiroth of the left pillar (called the Pillar of Severity) represent the

 

"masculine" characteristics of God (such as "judgment" and "understanding"), Sephiroth of

 

the right pillar (the Pillar of Mercy) represent the "feminine" characteristics of God (such as

 

"mercy" and "wisdom"). The Center pillar is the perfect "balance" between Severity and

 

Mercy. Both the Angel Metatron (identified as the transported person of Enoch) and Christ

 

are commonly associated with the Sephira “Tipareth” which are centered upon the middle

 

pillar.

 

In the Zohar the Pillars on the left and right are associated with the Biblical characters

 

of Isaac and Abraham, respectively. The center Pillar is associated with Jacob. Through his

 

dream as detailed in Genesis, Jacob is made to understand by the image of the ladder the

 

unity of the three pillars. There are Theologians who believe that the three pillars of the tree

 

of life were the original basis for the concept of the Christian Trinity. In the account of

 

Jacob’s ladder given in Genesis 28: 10-22 the Angels serve as the entities which carry out

 

the will of God. Their pathway in doing so is Jacobs Ladder - the center pillar, or the pillar of

 

balance. Thus the ladder is associated with God’s perfect and balanced will and God’s

 

grace.

 

There are two different Kabalistic interpretations of the story of Jacob. The Jewish

 

philosopher Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, 1138–1204 AD[xvi]), in his “Guide to the

 

Perplexed[xvii]” believed the story of Jacob’s ladder was intended as an explanation of the

 

relationship between man’s existence on earth and existence in the “world of heavenly

 

spheres”. He believed that the ascending angels are the prophets whose understanding of

 

the ladder allows them an elevated level of spiritual awareness. The descending angels

 

represent the prophets who having gained spiritual awareness descend to the material

 

world to transmit their knowledge. Therefore, the dream relates that the two worlds, while

 

separate are none-the-less connected and may be comprehended by study of the Tree of

 

Life. Through this understanding man may reach the level of the Prophet.

 

A second interpretation is given by Hassidic leader R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745

 

– 1813 AD[xviii]) and R. Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821). In this interpretation, the Ladder

 

symbolizes the stages of spiritual progression. This interpretation views the ascending and

 

descending Angels to represent the mobility of spirit. It is interesting that in the commentary

 

on this interpretation it is noted that the ladder does not rest “on the ground” but rather

 

“near the ground” and that its anchor-point is in heaven.

 

Since it is not my purpose here to explain the complex meaning of the Tree of Life I

 

will simply note that from my point-of-view, the esoteric notion represented by the Masonic

 

Ladder is consistent with the interpretation rendered by Shneur Zalman of Lyady et. al. This

 

is not surprising since this interpretation appears to have been formulated at about the

 

same time period in which the Masonic ladder first appeared in our ritual. The Masonic

 

Ladder alludes to the Spiritual growth and transcendence which is possible through study.

 

We are also reminded that having ascended and received light, we are obligated also to

 

descend the ladder to share our knowledge and faith with our Brothers.

 

The Great Chain of Being

 

The “Great Chain of Being”, also known as the “Scala Naturae” (Latin: Ladder of

 

Nature) or the “Echelle des Etres” (French: Scale of Beings) is a concept[xix] developed from

 

the ideas of Plato (circa 427 – 347 BC), Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), and the Neo Platonist

 

philosophers Plotinus (circa 204–270 A.D.) and Porphyry (circa 234– 305 A.D.). Plato

 

conceived of "Ideal Forms" which were the patterns of perfection of physical being which

 

exist in the mind of God. This may be loosely interpreted as meaning that all of God’s

 

physical and spiritual creations possess some degree of perfection. Aristotle considered

 

that man is the most perfect of animal creations and that it would be possible to rank

 

animals based upon their level of perfection relative to man. The concept evolved to include

 

a hierarchal scale based upon degrees of perfection in which in which God was at the top,

 

followed by Spiritual Beings (i.e. Angels), followed respectively by Man, remaining members

 

of the Animal Kingdom, members of the Plant Kingdom, and lastly the Inert (mineral) world.

 

Within each these major Hierarchical categories, further ranking was developed. For

 

example Kings were placed at the top of the list of perfection in the Human realm, with

 

nobles following. This hierarchical scheme was justified using Biblical text from Romans

 

13:1 which establishes the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, and was the basis of the

 

medieval feudal system. During the Renaissance[xx] (roughly spanning the 14th to the 17th

 

century) and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment, the entire social spectrum was incorporated

 

into the hierarchy of the Great Chain of being. Written works by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716,

 

Compte de Buffon (1720-1788), Charles Bonner (1720-1793) established the Great Chain of

 

Being as “scientific fact”. In 1774 botanist Karl von Linné (Latinized as Carolus Linnaeus)

 

proposed a binomial system of nomenclature for classifying animal and plant organisms. In

 

his system, organisms were given two Latin names: “genus” and “species”. Each genus

 

included related species and was also part of a larger category of living things (this later

 

evolving into the modern system of Taxonomy comprising Class, Order, Genus, and

 

Species). Linné’s system was of course consistent with the Great Chain of Being. Author

 

Oliver Goldsmith in his text A History of the Earth and Animated Nature[xxi] published in

 

1774 created an exhaustive index[xxii] and hierarchical ranking of the organisms

 

constituting the Great Chain of Being, complete with illustrations.

 

The concept of the Great Chain of Being is believed[xxiii] to have been introduced to

 

Christian theology by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275 AD), and was especially popular with

 

the Christian Church since the concept adopted a stable hierarchy in which God is Supreme,

 

and because Clergy were considered to occupy the space just below Nobility in this

 

hierarchy. Further, the power of the Church ranked second only to the Power of the Empire

 

(or Kingdom).

 

A person living during the 16 th though the 18 th centuries knew without doubt his or

 

her own places in the Great Chain of Being. The doctrine of the Great Chain of Being

 

permitted no opportunity for improvements upon God’s perfection, hence one’s lot in life

 

was considered both divine destiny and unalterable, not only for a given individual but also

 

for one’s descendants. (i.e. a baker’s son would produce only baker’s sons and daughters).

 

As will be discussed later, this part of the doctrine appears to be highly contrived. This is

 

considered as such, since the Biblical description of Angels ascending and descending

 

Jacob’s ladder clearly represents the possibility for upward and downward mobility of spirit

 

within the Chain. This rigid doctrine also did not provide for any degree of overlap within the

 

Chain of Being, i.e. the overlap of beings exhibiting higher levels of perfection in one class

 

with lower level beings of the next higher class. This is puzzling as well since the Great

 

Chain of Being and the revival of Alchemy were contemporary concepts.

 

Arthur O. Lovejoy in his seminal work the Great Chain of Being[xxiv] made the

 

observation that persons living during the “Age of Enlightenment” (roughly 1670 to

 

1815[xxv]) were largely those with minds which habitually assumed that simple solutions

 

are possible for even the most complex matters. Lovejoy used the term “esprits simpliste” to

 

describe this propensity. He wrote:

 

“The representatives of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for

 

example, were manifestly characterized to a peculiar degree by the presumption of

 

simplicity. Though there were numerous exceptions, though there were powerful ideas in

 

vogue which worked in the contrary direction, it was never-the-less largely an age of esprits

 

simplistes…”

 

As can be plainly discerned, the Great Chain of Being introduced a socio-political

 

order which upheld the existing power structure. The acceptance by the masses of the Great

 

Chain of Being as unalterable fact began to unravel around the time of the French Revolution

 

and the founding of the United States, both of which championed a form of political rule

 

which was not based upon hereditary kingship. Social mobility of the classes was indeed a

 

shockingly radical concept.

 

Conclusion

 

The Great Chain of Being had an immense influence upon early western culture and

 

the way we viewed ourselves in the context of relationships between men and between man

 

and God. The close ties of Esoteric Freemasonry and Kabalistic concepts are well known

 

and are generally accepted by knowledgeable Masons. It is entirely possible that the Great

 

Chain may have had Kabalistic thought as its inspiration, since the concept of the Kabalistic

 

Tree of Life probably pre-dated Plato. It is interesting to note that the basic concept of the

 

Great Chain of Being which began as a brilliant question aimed at defining Man’s place in

 

the Universe eventually evolved into a complex system which restricted freedoms and was

 

responsible for racial discrimination.

 

I am proud to say that the tie which binds the Masonic Ladder and the Great Chain of

 

Being is consistent with the original brilliant question: How does mankind relate to God and

 

how does Man ascend to the light of God ?

 

[i] Jacobs Ladder. Short talk Bulletin. Masonic Service Association ofNorth America. Vol.XIII April, 1935 No.4.

 

[ii] Tillyard, E.M.W. (1944).The Elizabethan World Picture: A Studyofthe Idea of Order in theAge of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. New York: The MacMillan Company.

 

[iii] Jacob’s Ladder. Kennings Masonic Cyclopaedia and Handbookof Masonic Archeology, Historyand Biography. Kenning, George & Woodford A.F.A.(Eds.). London. 1878.

 

[iv] Zeldis, Leon. (2003). Symbolism ofthe Ladder. Masonic Symbolsand Signposts. Anchor Communications.

 

[v] McEvoy, Norman. (2003-2011). Jacobs Ladder. The Educator. Retrieved May 10, 2012 from http://www.theeducator.ca/symbolism/jacobs-ladder/.

 

[vi] George Oliver (1837). Signs And SymbolsIllustrated And Explained in a Course of Twelve Lectures on Freemasonry. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper.

 

[vii] Ramachandran, R. (2002). Jacob's Ladder. Sri Brahadeeswara LodgeMasonicResearch Circle. Retrieved May10, 2012 from http://www.masonicpaedia.org/showarticle.asp?id=4

 

[viii] Sherer, John. (1876). The Masonic Ladder, or, The Nine Stepsto AncientFreemasonry: A Practical Exhibit, In Prose and Verse, ofthe Moral Precepts, Traditions, Scriptural Instructionsand Allegories of the Degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, Master Mason, MarkMaster, Past Master, Most ExcellentMaster, Royal Arch Mason, Royal Master and SelectMaster. Cincinatti: R.W. Carroll & Co. Publishers.

 

[ix] Wilmhurst, W.L. (2007). The Masonic Initiation. Plumbstone. ISBN-10: 1603020020; ISBN-13: 978-1603020022

 

[x] Wilbur, Ken. (2001). A BriefHistory of Everything. Shambhala. ISBN-10: 1570627401; ISBN-13: 978-1570627408

 

[xi] Smith, Houston. (2003). Beyond the Postmodern Mind: ThePlace of Meaning in a Global Civilization. Quest Books. ISBN-10: 0835608301; ISBN-13: 978-0835608305

 

[xii] Op Cit. Wilbur, Ken. (2001). A BriefHistory ofEverything

 

[xiii] Winthrop, Robert H. (1991). Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN: 0-313-24280-1

 

[xiv] Kroeber, Alfred Louis. (1948). Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Pre-history. New York: Harcourt, Brace &Company

 

[xv] Mackey, Albert G. (1917). Encyclopedia ofFreemasonryand its Kindred Sciences. Philadelphia: McClure Publishing Company.

 

[xvi] Seeskin, Kenneth, Maimonides, TheStanford Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved May13, 2012 from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/maimonides/.

 

[xvii] Pines, S. (1963) TheGuide of thePerplexed. Chicago: University ofChicago Press.

 

[xviii] Shimon.(2012) Torah and Kabbalah Commentary with the Teaching of theZohar. Retrieved May 10, 2012 from http://rabbishimon.com/tzadikim/.

 

[xix] Knuuttila, Simo. (1981). Reforging the GreatChain of Being: Studiesof the History ofModal Theories. Dordrecht, Holland: R. Reidel Publishing Company.

 

[xx] Stuber, Peter. (1997). The GreatChain of Being. Retrieved May12, 2012 from thewebsiteof the Department of Philosophy, Earlham College at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/courses/re/chain.htm

 

[xxi] Goldsmith, Oliver. (1824). A History of theEarth and Animated Nature. Philadelphia: Edward Poole.

 

[xxii] Lynskey, Winifred. Goldsmith and the Chain of Being. Journal of the HistoryofIdeas. Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jun., 1945), pp. 363-374.

 

[xxiii] Fairweather, A.M. . (2011). Natureand Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Literary Licensing, LLC. ISBN-10: 1258117428; ISBN-13: 9781258117429.

 

[xxiv] Lovejoy, A. (1942). TheGreat Chain ofBeing: A Studyof the History ofan Idea. The William James lectures, Delivered at Harvard University1933. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UniversityPress.

 

[xxv] Israel, Jonathan. (2006). Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation ofMan 1670-1752. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 0199279225; ISBN-13: 978-0199279227

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