A Symbologist Speaks!

In my Religion Dispatches essay this week about Angels & Demons, I make a crack about the nonexistence of the hero’s stated academic discipline, “symbology.” But maybe I’m wrong. I think I’ve just found a symbologist.

180px-eyeTrolling around on the Internet today, I found this Canadian Masonic website which denies the conventional wisdom that the pyramid on the back of an American dollar bill is truly Masonic. Concerned that everything I know might start crumbling, I shot an email to Samuel Biagetti, who joined me in seeing Angels & Demons last week. He studies Freemasonry in the history department at Columbia University which makes him, he says, “a real real history grad student and a fake real symbologist.” If his answer isn’t symbology, I’m George Washington.

Masons today will sometimes deny the Masonic nature of the seal reverse because of the claim’s conspiratorial overtones. This is part of a genre of literature downplaying Masonic power and debunking conspiratorial myths, which has been common particularly since the anti-masonic movement.

The specific argument here has several flaws, and in my opinion is totally incorrect and disingenuous. First, it is true that the “Eye of Providence” was a common element in Renaissance and Enlightenment art, often seen looming over a religious scene and set within a triangle.

However, the reverse seal does not show an Eye of Providence over a Christian mythological scene of animals or angels, but rather atop an architectural form, and an Egyptian one at that. Most importantly, the architectural form is unfinished, with a gap in the pyramid preventing the base from reaching the Eye that would complete it. The “all-seeing eye” looming over an unfinished temple or tower is a typical theme of Masonic iconography in the eighteenth century (an American example can be seen in Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood, 146), and the Eye of Providence is in fact very common in all Masonic iconography (an example in Ibid., 88). It echoes the Masons’ founding myths surrounding both the Tower of Babel and Hiram Abif, the architect whose murder prevented Solomon’s Temple from being completed according to the divine plan. The simple pyramidal form and the slogan on the reverse seal allow its message to be read quite easily: the earthly order must be completed and perfected in order to reach the divine. Many of the elements for the reverse seal was of course available to anybody in the Enlightenment, but its overall form is clearly Masonic influenced.

Secondly, the argument dissociates the process whereby the seal was created from Masonry by labelling many people willy-nilly as “non-Masons.” It may be true that Franklin is the only absolute, undeniable, and overt Mason on the committee, but that does not mean that the other men were not Masons. Masonry was hugely popular in the American literate gentry; there are contemporary references to Jefferson being a Mason, and it is quite possible that he was; and many other men of the eighteenth century were discrete about their Masonic activity, and have only been identified as Masons long after their deaths. Probabilistically speaking, it is almost impossible that Franklin was the only Mason involved in the development of the seal. The Masonic membership of Francis Hopkinson, designer on the second committee who proposed the unfinished pyramid, is uncertain, but he was the son of Thomas Hopkinson, a Masonic grand master and close associate of Franklin. In my opinion, based on the Masonic themes of the seal, I would say res ipsa loquitur-the thing speaks for itself; we may not know exactly how or through whom Masonic ideas gave shape to the seal reverse, but they clearly did.

The moral of the story: symbology is out there after all. It is just hidden in more useful disciplines like history, art history, philosophy, religious studies, and anthropology. I would suspect that Joseph Campbell-style pop scholarship (mainly nonsense, though it’s hard not to love) is to blame for Dan Brown’s impression that Harvard is crawling with people studying symbols for their own sake. Historical symbols are worth studying not because they are ladders to ultimate truth or because they’ll help you stop clerical terrorists from blowing up the Vatican. Interpreting them is simply a part of the far more interesting, sensible, and diverse questions with which scholars concern themselves. But it’s still great fun.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.