Pythagoras, Geometry, and Derivation from the Leland Manuscript

The theory which ascribes, if not the actual origin of Freemasonry to Pythagoras, at least its introduction into Europe by him, through the school which he established at Crotona, in Italy, which, was a favorite poke one among our early writers, may very properly be placed among the legends of the Order, since it wants all the requisites of historical authority for its support. The notion was most probably derived from what has been called the Leland Manuscript, because it is said to have been found in the Bodleian Library, in the handwriting of that celebrated antiquary. The author of the Life of Leland gives this account of the manuscript:

The original is said to be the handwriting of King Henry VI and copied by Leland by order of his highness, King Henry VIII. If the authenticity of this ancient monument of literature remains unquestioned, it demands particular notice in the present publication, on account of the singularity of the subject, and no less from a due regard to the royal writer and our author, his transcriber, indefatigable in every part of literature. It will also be admitted, acknowledgment is due to the learned Mr. Locke, who, amidst the closest studies and the most-strict attention to human understanding, could unbend his mind in search of this ancient treatise, which he first brought from obscurity in the year 1796.[i][ii]

The title of it, as given in the magazine, is in the following words:

Certeyne Questyons wyth Answeres to the same, concerynge the Mystery of Maconrye; wrytenne by the hande of Kynge Henrye the Sixthe of the Name, and faythefullye copyed by me Johan Leylande, Antiquarius, by the commaunde of His Highnesse.

The opinion of Masonic critics of the present day is that the document is a forgery. It was most probably written about the time and in the spirit in which Chatterton composed his imitations of the Monk Rowley, and of Ireland with his impositions of Shakespeare, and was fabricated as an unsuccessful attempt to imitate the archaic language of the 15th century, and as a pious fraud intended to elevate the character and sustain the pretensions of the Masonic Fraternity by furnishing the evidence of its very ancient origin.

Such were not, however, the views of the Masonic writers of the last and beginning of the present century. They accepted the manuscript, or rather the printed copy of it - for the original codex has never been seen - with unhesitating, faith as an authentic document. Hutchinson gave it as an appendix to his Spirit of Masonry, Preston published in the second and enlarged edition of his Illustrations, Calcott in his Candid Disquisition, Dermott in his Ahiman Rezon, and Krause in his Drei Altesten Kunslurkunden. In none of these is there the faintest hint of its being anything but an authentic document. Oliver said: "I entertain no doubt of the genuineness and authenticity of this valuable Manuscript."

The same view has been entertained by Reghellini among the French, and by Krause, Fessler, and Lenning among the Germans. Mr. Halliwell was perhaps the first of English scholars to express a doubt of its genuineness. After a long and unsuccessful search in the Bodleian Library for the original, he came, very naturally, to the conclusion that it is a forgery. Hughan and Woodford, both excellent judges, have arrived at the same conclusion, and it is now a settled question that the Leland or Locke Manuscript (for it is known by both titles) is a document of no historic character. It is not, however, without its value.

To its appearance about the middle of the last century, and the unhesitating acceptance of its truth by the Craft at the time, we can, in all probability, assign the establishment of the doctrine that Freemasonry was of a Pythagorean origin, though it had been long before adverted to by Dr. Anderson. Before proceeding to an examination of the rise and progress of this opinion, it will be proper to cite so much of the manuscript as connects Pythagoras with Masonry.

I do not quote the whole document, though it is short, because it has so repeatedly been printed, in even elementary Masonic works, as to be readily accessible to the reader. In making my quotations I shall so far defer to the artifice of the fabricator as to preserve unchanged his poor attempt to imitate the orthography and style of the 15th century, and interpolate in brackets, when necessary, an explanation of the most unintelligible words.

The document purports to be answers by some Mason to questions proposed by King Henry VI, who, it would seem, must have taken some interest in the " Mystery of Masonry," and had sought to obtain from competent authority a knowledge of its true character. The following are among the questions and answers:

Q.Where dyd ytt [Masonry] begynne?

A.Ytt dyd begynne with the fyrst menne, yn the Este, which were before the fyrste Manne of the Weste, and comyngc westlye, ytt hathe broughte herwyth alle comfortes to the wylde and comfortlesse.

Q. Who dyd brynge ytt Westye?

A. The Venetians [Phoenicians] who beynge grate Merchandes comed ffyrst ffrome the Este yn Venctia [Phoenicia] for the commodyte of Merchaundysinge beithe [both] Este and Weste bey the redde and Myddlelonde [Mediterranean] Sees.

Q. Howe comede ytt yn Englonde?

A. Peter Gower [Pythagoras] a Grecian journeyedde tor kunnynge yn Egypt and in Syria and in everyche Londe whereat the Venetians [Phoenicians] hadde plauntedde Maconrye and wynnynge Entraunce yn all Lodges of Maconnes, he lerned muche, and retournedde and woned [dwelt] yn Cirecia Magna wachsynge [growing] and becommynge a myghtye wyseacre [philosopher] and gratelyche renouned and here he framed a grate Lodge at Groton [Crotona] and maked many Maconnes, some whereoffe dyd journeye yn Fraunce, and maked manye Maconnes wherefromme, yn processe of Tyme, the Arte passed yn Engelonde.

I am convinced that there was a French original of this document, from which language the fabricator translated it into archaic English. The internal proofs of this are to be found in the numerous preservations of French idioms. Thus we meet with Peter Gower, evidently derived from Pythagore, pronounced Petagore, the French for Pythagoras; Maconrye and Maconnes, for Masonry and Masons, the French c in the word being used instead of the Englishs, - the phrase wynnynge the Facultye of Abrac, which is a pure Gallic idiom, instead of acquiring the faculty, the word gayner being indifferently used in French as signifying to win or to acquire, - the word Freres for Brethren, - and the statement, in the spirit of French nationality, that Masonry was brought into England out of France.

None of these idiomatic phrases or national peculiarities would have been likely to occur if the manuscript had been originally written by an Englishman and in the English language. But be this as it may, the document bad no sooner appeared than it seemed to inspire contemporary Masonic writers with the idea that Masonry and the school of Pythagoras, which he established at Crotona, in Italy, about five centuries before Christ, were closely connected - an idea which was very generally adopted by their successors, so that it came at last to be a point of the orthodox Masonic creed.

Thus Preston, in his Illustrations of Masonry, when commenting on the dialogue contained in this document, says that:

The records of the fraternity inform us that Pythagoras was regularly initiated into Masonry; and being properly instructed in the mysteries of the Art, he was much improved, and propagated the principles of the Order in other countries into which he afterwards traveled.

Calcott, in his Candid Disquisition, speaks of the Leland Manuscript as:

… an antique relation, from whence may be gathered many of the original principles of the ancient society, on which the institution of Freemasonry was ingrafted [by the] ancient society meaning the school of Pythagoras.

Hutchinson, in his Spirit of Masonry, quotes this "ancient Masonic record," as he calls it, and says that" it brings us positive evidence of the Pythagorean doctrine and Basilidian principles making the foundation of our religious and moral duties."

Two of the lectures in his work are appropriated to a discussion of the doctrines of Pythagoras in connection with the Masonic system. But this theory of the Pythagorean origin of Freemasonry does not owe its existence to the writers of the middle of the 18th century. It had been advanced at an early period, and soon after the Revival in 1717 by Dr. Anderson. In the first edition of the Constitutions, published in 1723, he alludes to Pythagoras as having borrowed great knowledge from the Chaldean Magi and the Babylonish Jews, but he is more explicit in his Defense of Masonry, published in 1730, wherein he says:

I am fully convinced that Freemasonry is very nearly allied to the old Pythagorean Discipline, from whence, I am persuaded, it may in some circumstances very justly claim a descent.

Now, how are we to explain the way in which this tradition of the connection of the Philosopher of Samos first acquired a place among the legends of the Craft? The solution of the problem does not appear to be very difficult. In none of the old manuscript constitutions which contain what has been called the Legend of the Guild, or the Legend of the Craft, is there, with a single exception, any allusion to the name of Pythagoras. That exception is found in the Cooke MS., where the legendist, after relating the story of the two pillars inscribed with all the sciences, which had been erected by Jabal before the Flood, adds, in lines 318-326, this statement:

And after this flode many yeres as the cronyclc tellcth these ii were founde and as the polycronicon seyeth that a grete clerke that called putogaras [Pythagoras] fonde that one and hermes the philisophre fonde that other, and thei tought forthe the sciens that thei fonde therein ywritten.

Now, although the Cooke MS. is the earliest of the old records, after the Halliwell poem, none of the subsequent constitutions have followed it in this allusion to Pythagoras. This was because the writer of the Cooke MS., being in possession of the Polychronicon of the monk Ranulph Higden, an edition of which had been printed during his time by William Caxton, he had liberally borrowed from that historical work and incorporated parts of it into his Legend.

Of these interpolations, the story of the finding of one of the pillars by Pythagoras is one. The writer acknowledges his indebtedness for the statement to Higden's Polychronicon. But it formed no part of the Legend of the Craft, and hence no notice is taken of it in the subsequent manuscript copies of the Legend, in none of them is Pythagoras even named.

It is evident, then, that in the 14th and following centuries, to the beginning of the 18th, the theory of the Pythagorean origin of Freemasonry, or of the connection of the Grecian philosopher with it, was not recognized by the Craft as any part of the traditional history of the Fraternity. There is no safer rule than that of the old schoolmen, which teaches us that we must reason alike concerning that which does not appear and that which does not exist - "de non apparentibus et de non existentibus, eadem est ratio."

The old craftsmen who fabricated the Legend were workmen and not scholars; they were neither acquainted with the scholastic nor the ancient philosophy; they said nothing about Pythagoras because they knew nothing about him. But about the beginning of the 18th century a change took place, not only in the organization of the Masonic institution, but also in the character and qualifications of the men who were engaged in producing the modification, or we might more properly call it the revolution.

Although in the 17th, and perhaps in the 16th century, many persons were admitted into the Lodges of Operative Masons who were not professional builders, it is, I think, evident that the society did not assume a purely speculative form until the year 1717. The Revival in that year, by the election of Anthony Sayer, "Gentleman," as Grand Master; Jacob Lamball, a "Carpenter," and Joseph Elliott, a "Captain," as Grand Wardens, proves that the control of the society was to be taken out of the hands of the Operative Masons. Among those who were at about that time engaged in the reconstruction of the Institution were James Anderson and Theophilus Desaguliers.

Anderson was a Master of Arts, and afterward a Doctor of Divinity, the minister of a church in London, and an author; Desaguliers was a Doctor of Laws, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a teacher of Experimental Philosophy of no little reputation. Both of these men, as scholars, were thoroughly conversant with the system of Pythagoras, and they were not unwilling to take advantage of his symbolic method of inculcating his doctrine, and to introduce some of his symbols into the symbolism of the Order which they were renovating.

Jamblichus, the biographer of Pythagoras, tells us that while the sage was on his travels he caused himself to be initiated into all the mysteries of Byblos and Tyre and those which were practiced in many parts of Syria. But as these mysteries were originally received by the Phoenicians from Egypt, he passed over into that country, where he remained twenty-two years, occupying himself in the study of geometry, astronomy, and all the initiations of the gods, until he was carried a captive into Babylon by the soldiers of Cambyses. There he freely associated with the Magi in their religion, and their studies. Having obtained a thorough knowledge of music, the science of numbers, and other arts, he finally returned to Greece.[iii]

The school of philosophy which Pythagoras afterward established at the city of Crotona, in Italy, differed from those of all the other philosophers of Greece, in the austerities of initiation to which his disciples were subject in the degrees of probation into which they were divided, and in the method which lie adopted of veiling his instructions under symbolic forms. In his various travels, he had imbibed the mystical notions prevalent among the Egyptians and the Chaldeans, and had borrowed some of their modes of initiation into their religious mysteries, which he adopted in the method by which he communicated his own principles.

Grote, in his History of Greece, has very justly said that:

Pythagoras represents in part the scientific tendencies of his age, in part also the spirit of mysticism and of special fraternities for religious and ascetic observance which became diffused throughout Greece in the 6th century before the Christian era.

Of the character of the philosophy of Pythagoras and of his method of instruction, which certainly bore a very close resemblance to that adopted by the founders of the speculative system, such cultivated scholars as Anderson and Desaguliers certainly were not ignorant. And if, among those who were engaged with them in the construction of this new and improved school of speculative Masonry, there were any whose limited scholastic attainments would not enable them to consult the Greek biographies of Pythagoras by Jamblichus and by Porphyry.

They had at hand and readily accessible an English translation of M. Dacier's life of the philosopher, containing also an elaborate explication of his symbols, together with a translation of the Commentaries of Hierodes on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, all embraced in one volume and published in London in the year 1707, by the celebrated bibliopole Jacob Tonson.

There was abundant material and ready opportunity for the partially unlearned as well as for the more erudite to obtain a familiarity with the philosophy of Pythagoras, his method of initiation, and his system of symbols.

It is not, therefore, surprising that these "Revivalists," as they have been called, should have delighted, as Anderson has done in his Defense of Masonry, to compare the two schools of the Pythagoreans and the Freemasons; that they should have dwelt on their great similarity; and in the development of their speculative system should have adopted many symbols from the former which do not appear to have been known to or used by the old Operative Masons whom they succeeded.

Among the first Pythagorean symbols which were adopted by the Speculative Masons was the symbolism of the science of numbers, which appears in the earliest rituals extant, and of which Dr. Oliver has justly said, in his posthumous work entitled The Pythagorean Triangle, that:

The Pythagoreans had so high an opinion of it that they considered it to be the origin of all things, and thought a knowledge of it to be equivalent to a knowledge of God.

This symbolism of numbers, which was adopted into Speculative Masonry at a very early period after the Revival, has been developed and enlarged in successive revisions of the lectures, until at the present day it constitutes one of the most important and curious parts of the system of Freemasonry. But we have no evidence that the same system of numerical symbolism, having the Pythagorean and modern Masonic interpretation, prevailed among the Craft anterior to the beginning of the 18th century.

It was the work of the Revivalists, who, as scholars familiar with the mystical philosophy of Pythagoras, deemed it expedient to introduce it into the equally mystical philosophy of Speculative Masonry.

In fact, the Traveling Freemasons, Builders, or Operative Masons of the Middle Ages, who were the real predecessors of the Speculative Masons of the 18th century, did not, so far as we can learn from their remains, practice any of the symbolism of Pythagoras. Their symbol, such as the Vesica Piscis, the Cross, the Rose, or certain mathematical figures, were derived either from the legends of the church or from the principles of geometry applied to the art of building.

These skillful architects who, in the dark ages, when few men could read or write, erected edifices surpassing the works of ancient Greece or Rome, and which have never been equaled by modern builders, were wonderful in their peculiar skill, but were wholly ignorant of metaphysics or philosophy, and borrowed nothing from Pythagoras.

Between the period of the Revival and the adoption of the Prestonian system, in 1772, the lectures of Freemasonry underwent at least seven revisions. In each of these, the fabricators of which were such cultivated scholars as Dr. Desaguliers, Martin Clare, a President of the Royal Society, Thomas Dunckerley, a man of considerable literary attainments, and others of like character, there was a gradual increment of Pythagorean symbols. Among these, one of the most noted is the forty-seventh proposition of Euclid, which is said to have been discovered by Pythagoras, and which the introducer of it into the Masonic system, in his explanation of the symbol, claims the sage to have been "an ancient brother."

For some time after the Revival, the symbols of Pythagoras, growing into gradual use among the Craft, were referred to simply as an evidence of the great similarity which existed between the two systems - a theory which, so far as it respects modern Speculative Masonry, may be accepted with but little hesitation.

The most liberal belief on this subject was that the two systems were nearly allied, but, except in the modified statement of Anderson, already quoted from his Defense of Masonry, there was no claim in the years immediately succeeding the Revival that the one was in direct descent from the other. In none of the speeches, lectures, or essays of the early part of the last century, which have been preserved, is there any allusion to this as a received theory of the Craft.

Drake, in his speech before the Grand Lodge of York, delivered in 1726 does indeed, speak of Pythagoras, not as the founder of Masonry, but only in connection with Euclid and Archimedes as great proficients in Geometry, whose works have been the basis " on which the learned have built at different times so many noble superstructures."

And of Geometry, he calls it "that noble and useful science which must have begun and goes hand in hand with Masonry," an assertion which, to use the old chorus of the Masons, nobody will deny." But to say that Geometry is closely connected with Operative Masonry, and that Pythagoras was a great Geometrician, is very different from saying that he was a Mason and propagated Masonry in Europe.

Martin Clare, in his lecture on the Advantages Enjoyed by the Fraternity, whose date is 1735, does not even mention the name of Pythagoras, although, in one passage at least, when referring to "those great and worthy spirits with whom we are intimately related," he had a fair opportunity to refer to that illustrious sage.

In a Discourse Upon Masonry, delivered before a Lodge of England in 1742, now lying before me, in which the origin of the Order is fully discussed, there is not one word of reference to Pythagoras. The same silence is preserved in a Lecture on the Connection Between Freemasonry and Religion, by the Rev. C. Brockwell, published in 1747. But after the middle of the century the frequent references in the lectures to the Pythagorean symbols, and especially to that important one, in its Masonic as well as its geometrical value, the forty-seventh proposition, began to lead the members of the society to give to Pythagoras the credit of a relationship to the order to which historically he had no claim.

[i]This production was first brought to the attention of scholars by being published in the Gentlemen's Magazine for September 1753, where it is stated to have been previously printed at Frankfort, in Germany, in 1748, from a copy found in "the writing-desk of a deceased brother."

[ii] "Life of John Leland," p. 67.

[iii] "Jamblichus de Pythagorica Vita," c. iii., iv.

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