If you say that someone or something is ‘on the level’, you mean that they are sincere or honest, and are not attempting to deceive people.
[informal] There were probably moments when you wondered if anyone spoke the truth or was on the level.
Synonyms: honest, genuine, sincere, open.
– Source: Collins Dictionary
So, what is the Level? And why do we use it in Freemasonry?
The level is a tool used by stonemasons, builders, carpenters, and other craftsmen in construction and has been employed as such for millennia.
Around 4000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians were using a combination level square (and plumb) to ensure the pyramids were precisely built; that these wonders of the world are still standing today is testament to their superb building skills.
Surveyor’s Level Amulet – late Period 664–332 B.C. Dyn. 26-30. Met Museum. Accession Number
89.2.301. Open Access Image/PD-Art
IMAGE CREDIT: metmuseum.org Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
What, then, is the equality of which the Level is the Symbol?
Clearly it is not identity, or even similarity of gift and endowment.
No, it is something better; it is the equal right of each man to the full use and development of such power as he has, whatever it may be, unhindered by injustice or oppression.
As our Declaration of Independence puts it, every man has an equal and inalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” with due regard for the rights of others in the same quest.
Or, as a famous slogan summed it up; “Equal Rights for all; Special Privileges to None!”
That is to say, before the law every man has an equal right to equal justice, as before God, in whose presence all men are one in their littleness, each receives equally and impartially the blessing of the Eternal Love, even as the sun shines and the rain falls on all with equal benediction.
– Source: Short Talk Bulletin – Jun. 1924
In construction, the level is used to indicate that an object is the same distance from a common surface no matter at which point you measure from.
However, the level can only ‘sit’ straight if it is placed on a solid foundation, and perhaps one of the most important interpretive speculative lessons we can take from this is that to build a straight, true and balanced construction, we must first make sure the foundations we build upon are firm, straight and level.
There is no use building upon a shaky, unfirm, or unlevel base otherwise our ‘building’ may fall.
This can be used symbolically to represent becoming a ‘better man/woman’ – we must make sure our foundations are level before we build on ourselves.
Justice represented by a woman holding the balance scale
IMAGE LINKED: wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
In Freemasonry, being ‘on the level’ implies that we are ‘honest’, ‘fair’, balanced in mind, body and spirit, and it is also aligned with one of the Cardinal Virtues – Justice. Justice is often represented by a woman holding the balance scale – the level is at its core and the arms must be equal to show true balance.
Book of the Dead for the Chantress of Amun, Nanyca. 1050 B.C. Third Intermediate Period.
Deir el-Bahri, Tomb of Meritamun (TT 358, MMA 65) Met Museum Accession Number: 30.3.31
Open Access Image/PD
IMAGE LINKED: metmuseum.org Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
In ancient Egypt, there is a famous scene depicted in the funerary text The Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth by Day) which shows the deceased being judged in the Hall of Maat.
Their heart is placed in one pan of the scales and the feather of Maat (the goddess/cosmological concept representing order, truth, justice, balance) sits in the opposite.
If the heart weighs the same as the feather, then the deceased is deemed worthy of having lived a just life and will be allowed to continue their journey to the afterlife.
If the heart is too heavy – indicating that the deceased did not live a true and just life – then the deceased’s heart (soul) will be devoured by Ammit (‘Devourer of the Dead’ or ‘Eater of Hearts’) and/or tortured incessantly by any number of demons and condemned to a state of ‘non-being’, which for the ancient Egyptians was literally their idea of hell.
The concept of Maat is a fascinating one and it sits quite nicely amid the symbolism and philosophy within Freemasonry.
In ancient Egypt it was the core cosmological principal – order from chaos – Maat represents all that holds the universe together to protect it from Isfet (chaos).
This concept is represented as a goddess adorned with the ‘feather of Truth’ upon her headdress, or merely as a feather.
The Memphite creator god Ptah, is often depicted standing upon the plinth, the hieroglyph of Maat.
It was Pharoah’s duty to uphold Maat and protect Egypt from disorder and chaos.
Pharaoh offering Maat
IMAGE CREDIT: Philippa Lee
The other important symbolism we can take from the level is once again connected with death.
We are all equal in the eyes of death – the Roman poet Claudius Claudianus said ‘Death is the great leveller’.
However much we dress things up or down, it will happen – death comes for us all – the rich, the poor, and the in-between.
This means that no matter our station in life, or our place within the lodge, we will at some point stare death firmly in the face.
We are all equal – there is no privilege in death.
Death’s Door, from “The Grave,” a Poem by Robert Blair
Artist: Copy after William Blake (British, London 1757–1827 London) Met Museum Open Access Image
IMAGE LINKED: metmuseum.org Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Finally, we need to always remember that no matter what we do, who or where we are, we treat our brethren and those in the world equally.
In lodge, even though there are those who will always hold a position deemed higher than our own, or if we are already hold that position, we must all be held to the same standards.
The Installation Ceremony reminds the new Master that his position is only temporary: ‘From the ranks you have risen and to the ranks you shall return’.
It is all these things combined that teach us to be ‘on the level’.
THE LEVEL AND THE SQUARE
By Masonic Poet, ROB MORRIS
We meet upon the Level, and we part upon the Square,
What words of precious meaning those words Masonic are,
Come let us contemplate them, they are worthy of our thought,
With the highest and the lowest and the rarest they are fraught.
We meet upon the Level, though from every station come,
The king from out his palace, and the poor man from his home;
For the one must leave his diadem outside the mason’s door,
And the other finds his true respect upon the chequered floor.
We part upon the Square, for the world must have its due,
We mingle with its multitude, a cold unfriendly crew;
But the influence of our gatherings in memory is green,
And we long upon the level to renew the happy scene.
There’s a world where all are equal—we are hurrying towards it fast,
We shall meet upon the level there, when the gates of death are passed,
We shall stand before the Orient, and our Master will be there,
To try the blocks we offer by his own unerring Square.
We shall meet upon the level there, but never thence depart,
There’s a mansion—tis all ready for each trusting faithful heart,
There’s a mansion and a welcome, and a multitude is there
Who have met upon the level, and been tried upon the square.
Let us meet upon the level then, while laboring patient here,
Let us meet and let us labor, though the labor seem severe,
Already in the western sky the signs bid us prepare
To gather up our working tools, and part upon the square.
Hands round, ye faithful masons, form the bright fraternal chain,
We part upon the square below to meet in heaven again,
Oh what words of precious meaning those words masonic are—
“We meet upon the level, and we part upon the square,”
H. DE MARSAN, Publisher,
60 Chatham Street, New-York.
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