The tools of the craftsmen
I n his 2018 Prestonian Lecture, Christopher Noon examines the Ancient Greek texts that would have inspired the founders of modern Freemasonry
When Christopher Noon switched careers from lecturing in ancient history and classical languages at Oxford to becoming a data scientist for a major tech company, he feared he was leaving his love of the classical world behind for good. But a chance to revisit the subject presented itself when he was asked if he would give the 2018 Prestonian Lecture. Given under the authority of the United Grand Lodge of England, the annual lecture offered Christopher the opportunity to once more pore over the texts of Ancient Greek writers, but this time with the aim of finding masonic metaphors.
‘When I was studying and lecturing I’d looked at some references to workers’ tools in Ancient Greek texts that were used in a metaphorical way. Not just people talking about squares and compasses, but people talking about squares, rules and compasses as a way of measuring conduct,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to find really concrete references to things that are actually masonic rather than somebody saying “be a good man”, which is very general.’
On the hunt, Christopher found that ‘working tools’ showed promise. ‘It’s not an immediately obvious thing to tell somebody that their conduct must be tried by the square or they should keep within the bounds of the compass. These are very carefully thought-out metaphors that link conduct with tools. And as far as I could see, they began in the sixth century BC.’
The research formed the basis for ‘A Good Workman Praises his Tools: Masonic Metaphors in Ancient Greece’, a lecture that Christopher has already delivered to wide appreciation in several lodges throughout the country. He is well qualified for the task. As well as having studied and taught Ancient Greek literature, Christopher is also a dedicated mason, having joined Apollo University Lodge, No. 357, in Oxford when he was 19. Now 32, he is a member of four other lodges as well as several side Orders. ‘I am fairly masonically busy,’ he adds, with a touch of understatement.
Christopher first became intrigued by masonry when he saw his father leaving for meetings in a black tie and with a briefcase. Now, he particularly enjoys the chance to engage with the variety of people drawn to masonry.
‘I love seeing a ceremony performed well, and uncovering new meanings and then discussing it afterwards, sharing ideas of where it came from with people of all ages and backgrounds,’ he says. ‘It was only when I became a mason that I realised I could sit with somebody who is 18 or 80 and have a really interesting conversation.’
FINDING NEW PARALLELS
Masonry fuels Christopher’s intellectual curiosity, but it also taps into his academic rigour. For his lecture, he deconstructs the received wisdom regarding the origins of masonic metaphor in relating the tools of a craftsman to the measurement of good conduct. He discusses some of the ways previous writers and historians have found parallels between the visual imagery of the ancient world and the Craft, proposing that such visual references are too ambiguous.
‘A lot of people have come up with highly speculative theories about our ancient origins, but I wanted to look at early literary evidence rather than more ambiguous pictures that could mean a lot of different things,’ Christopher explains. ‘In a way, I’m trying to be boring – I’m asking what is the least we can say based on this evidence. The visual evidence isn’t strong, so let’s look at what we can prove. I see this as providing a baseline: the earliest very clear masonic references in classical literature.
‘The Classics were incredibly important in educated English society three centuries ago, and there was a lot of value placed in Greek architecture and literature,’ he says. ‘Freemasonry was created by an intellectual elite who would have been steeped in these metaphors, and they would have been an inspiration, providing the building blocks for modern-day masonry. The Greek writers would have been very well known among the circles the forefathers of Freemasonry moved in.’
After a quick perusal of the Delphic maxims – which include masonic principles such as ‘know thyself’, ‘help your friends’ and ‘do not tire of learning’ – Christopher looks in close detail at three Greek writers: Theognis, the lyric poet; Xenophon, the historian and biographer; and Euripides, the dramatist and tragedian. These writers were from different eras, writing for different audiences and located in different parts of the Greek world. However, they all used similar metaphors for similar purposes – metaphors that centuries later provided inspiration for masonic ceremonies.
‘The Greek writers would have been very well known among the circles the forefathers of Freemasonry moved in’
DIVING INTO THE CLASSICS
Christopher found the earliest references were made in the sixth century BC by Theognis of Megara, who wrote from the position of an aristocratic tutor educating a young gentleman pupil in the ways of decent behaviour. Much of his poetry survives only as fragments, with one verse discussing ‘a path straight as a rule, not veering off to either side’. As Christopher notes, this is a phrase very similar to that found in the Second Degree Working Tools: ‘neither turning to the right hand nor to the left from the strict path of virtue.’
Further references can be gleaned from other fragments, such as an instruction for man ‘to be straighter than the compasses, rule and square’. For Christopher, this is the earliest surviving example of literature that expresses masonic principles using masonic metaphors.
‘I’d seen things with masonic undertonesin Plato and Aristotle, and a chap called Isocrates – not Socrates – who used masonic ideas and talked about virtuous conduct. But it was only when I read Theognis of Megara that I saw these really clear references to squares,’ he says. ‘I began to dig through Greek literature broadly chronologically and found a lot more examples. However, Theognis was the first definite masonic link, whereas the philosophers showed a more general interest in the ideas.’
The better-known later writers, such as Xenophon of Athens and Euripides, also embraced this imagery, using the symbols of line and rule in the context of fashioning moral goodness. Christopher does not believe the three writers necessarily came up with these concepts independently. ‘The literature would have been passed around by the elite. They form a thread that runs through Greek literature.’
Christopher hopes his lecture will provoke further study; he would particularly like it to be read by a mason of his acquaintance who lectures in ancient philosophy. ‘I hope he will follow up by exploring Aristotle,’ he says.
Further insight could also come when Christopher takes the Prestonian Lecture to Athens for a talk early next year. Will he deliver it in Ancient Greek? ‘No, that might be a bridge too far,’ he chuckles. ‘But it will be a lot of fun.’