A Straightforward approach to Masonic Esotericism
Before we can speak meaningfully of Masonic esotericism, we must first establish a meaning for the word “esoteric.” In some Masonic jurisdictions, it is customary to use this term primarily to denote the parts of our work that are officially secret, those things that are performed in a tiled lodge or communicated by mouth to ear between brethren. However, the core meaning of this word more broadly references the inner (eso-) nature of things, those actualities and potentialities that are not immediately apparent or commonly understood. Contrary to a common misunderstanding both in and outside of Masonry, the esoteric is not limited to secret teachings about metaphysics, whether models of divine hierarchies, planes of manifestation, levels of consciousness, or practical methods of working with subtle energy. The effort to delve into such matters actually comes from our deeper, more essential, and even instinctive desire to unveil the unknown and grasp the mysteries of existence. It is this very rudimentary human desire to make the unknown known that is the essence of esotericism.
A Masonic form of esotericism would therefore have things in common with the more esoteric pursuits in other fields of endeavor. Quantum physicists qualify as the esotericists of physical science because they are concerned with aspects of matter and energy that are not directly observable and instead discernible only through mathematics. Depth psychologists are the esotericists of psychology because they seek to understand the inner workings of the human mind that are not immediately observable through physical behavior, neural activity, or ordinary cognition. Mystics are the esotericists of religion because they dive into the ecstatic and ineffable dimensions of devotion to Deity.
Likewise, Masonic esotericists are Masons who seek to understand the inner or hidden side of Masonry, which includes not only deeper interpretations of its symbolism and ritual, but the internal psychological challenges of actually following its principles and tenets. In other words, in its most basic sense, Masonic esotericism is the perception that there are mysterious depths within Masonry coupled with the effort to plumb those depths in our own lives.
Beginning with this definition, it can easily be shown that an esoteric approach in Masonry is not only possible, but that it is actually intended to be part of the Masonic experience. Masonry’s own words consistently encourage such perceptions, desires, and efforts through repeated attention to that which is “internal,” through the use of the term “speculative” to define our Craft, through symbolism and allegory as teaching methods, and through its encouragement for Masons to be studious, prayerful, contemplative, and virtuous. Furthermore, among our central allegorical allusions are the symbolic quests for light and the Lost Word. To argue that there is nothing inherently esoteric about Masonry would thus require a more narrow definition of “esoteric.” Terms like “esoteric Masonry,” ”Masonic esotericism,” or “Masonic esotericist” are therefore somewhat redundant, although they are presently useful in emphasizing that special attention is being given to the internal dimensions recommended by our ritual and monitorial teachings.
[Chuck Dunning, “A Straightforward Approach to Esotericism,” in Emerald Tablet, a publication of San Marcos Lodge No. 342, February 2014, Page 2.] From the Southern California Research Lodge, Fraternal Review, April 2017, Volume 58, Number 3