Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

As every mason knows, at the heart of our mysteries lies a legend, in which we learn how three unworthy craftsmen entered into a plot to extort from a famous mason a secret to which they had no right. It is all familiar enough, in its setting and sequence; and it is a part of his initiation which no mason ever forgets.

In spite of its familiarity, the scene in which the Ruffians appear is one of the most impressive that any man ever beheld, if it is not marred, as it often is, alas, by a hint of the rowdy.

No one can witness it without being made to feel there is a secret which, for all our wit and wisdom, we have not yet won from the Master Builder of the world; the mystery of evil in the life of man.

To one who feels the pathos of life and ponders its mystery, a part of the tragedy is the fact that the great man, toiling for the good of the race, is so often stricken down when the goal of his labours is almost within his reach; as Lincoln was shot in an hour when he was most needed. Nor is he an isolated example. The shadow lies dark upon the pages of history in every age.

The question is baffling: Why is it that evil men, acting from low motives and for selfish aims, have such power to throw the race into confusion and bring ruin upon all, defeating the very end at which they aim?

Is it true that all the holy things of life---the very things that make it worth living--‑are held at the risk and exposed to the peril of evil forces; and if so, why should it be so?

If we cannot answer such questions we can at least ask another nearer to hand. Since everything in Masonry is symbolic, who are the three Ruffians and what is the legend trying to tell us? Of course we know the names they wear, but what is the truth back of it all which it will help us to know?

As is true of all Masonic symbols, as many meanings have been found as there have been seekers.

It all depends upon the key with which each seeker sets out to unlock the meaning of Masonry. To those who trace our symbolism to the ancient solar worship, the three Ruffians are the three winter months who plot to murder the beauty and glory of summer, destroying the life‑giving heat of the sun. To those who find the origin of Masonry in the Ancient Mysteries of Egypt, it is a drama of Typhon, the Spirit of Evil, slaying the Spirit of Good, who is resurrected, in turn rising triumphant over death.

Not a few find the fulfilment of this oldest of all dramas in the life and death of Jesus, who was put to death outside the city gate by three of the most ruthless Ruffians--‑the Priest, the Politician, and the Mob.

Which of the three is the worst foe of humanity is hard to tell, but when they work together, as they usually do, there is no crime against man of which they have not been guilty.

A few who think that Masonry, as we have it, grew out of the downfall of the Knights Templar, identify the three assassins, as they are called in the lodges of Europe, with three renegade knights who falsely accused the Order, and so aided King Phillip and Pope Clement to abolish Templarism, and slay its Grand Master. A very few see in Cromwell and his adherents the plotters, putting to death Charles the First.

It is plain that we must go further back and deeper down if we are to find the real Ruffians, who are still at large, Albert Pike identified the three brothers who are the greatest enemies of individual welfare and social progress as Kingcraft, Priestcraft, and the ignorant Mob‑Mind. Together they conspire to destroy liberty, without which man can make no advance.

The first strikes a blow at the throat, the seat of freedom of speech, and that is a mortal wound. The second strikes at the heart, the home of freedom of conscience, and that is well nigh fatal, since it puts out the last ray of Divine light by which man is guided. The third of the foul plotters fells his victim dead with a blow on the brain, which is the throne of freedom of thought.

No lesson could be plainer; it is written upon every page of the past. If by apathy, neglect or stupidity we suffer free speech, free conscience, and free thought to be destroyed either by kingcraft, priestcraft, or the mob mind, or by all three working together‑for they are brothers and usually go hand in hand‑the temple of God is dark, there are no designs upon the trestle‑board, and the result is idleness, confusion, and chaos. It is a parable of history‑a picture of many an age in the past of which we read.

For, where there is no light of Divine Vision, the Altar fire is extinguished. The people 'perish,' as the Bible tells us; literally they become a mob, which is only another way of saying the same thing. There are no designs on the trestle‑board; that is, no leadership. Chaos comes again, inevitably so when all the lights are blown out, and the people are like ignorant armies that clash by night.

Of the three Ruffians, the most terrible, the most ruthless, the most brutal is the ignorant Mob‑Mind. No tyrant, no priest can reduce a nation to slavery and control until it is lost in the darkness of ignorance. By ignorance we mean not merely lack of knowledge, but the state of mind in which men refuse, or are afraid, to think, to reason, to enquire. When 'the great freedoms of the mind' go, everything is lost.

After this manner Pike expounded the meaning of the three Ruffians, who rob themselves, as they rob their fellow‑craftsmen, of the most precious secret of personal and social life. A secret, let it be added, which cannot be extorted, but is only won when we are worthy to receive it and have the wit and courage to keep it. For, oddly enough, we cannot have real liberty until we are ready for it, and we can only become worthy of it by seeking and striving for it.

But some of us go further, and find the same three Ruffians nearer home hiding in our own hearts. And naturally so, because society is only the individual writ large; and what men are together is determined by what each is by himself. If we would know who the Ruffians really are, we have only to ask: What three things waylay each of us, destroy character, and if they have their way either slay us or turn us into ruffians? Why do we do evil and mar the temple of God in us?

Three great Greek thinkers searched until they found the three causes of sin in the heart of man. In other words, they hunted in the mountains of the mind until they found the Ruffians.

Socrates said that the chief ruffian is ignorance‑that is, no man in his right mind does evil unless he is so blinded by ignorance that he does not see the right. No man, he said, seeing good and evil side by side, will choose evil unless he is too blind to see its results.

An enlightened self‑interest would stop him. Therefore, his remedy for the ills of life is knowledge‑more light, a clearer insight.

Even so, said Plato, it is all true as far as it goes. But the fact is that men do see right and wrong clearly, and yet in a dark mood they do wrong in spite of knowledge. When the mind is calm and clear the right is plain, but a storm of passion stirs up sediments in the bottom of the mind, and it is so cloudy that clear vision fails. The life of man is like driving a team of horses, one tame and the other wild.

So long as the wild horse is held firmly all goes well. But, alas, often enough, the wild horse gets loose and there is a run‑away and a wreck.

But that is not all, said Aristotle. We do not get to the bottom of truth of the matter unless we admit the fact and possibility‑in ourselves and in our fellows‑of a moral perversity, a spirit of sheer mischief, which does wrong, deliberately and in face of right, calmly and with devilish cunning, for the sake of wrong and for love of it. Here, truly, is the real Ruffian most to be feared‑a desperate character he is, who can only be overcome by Divine help.

Thus, three great thinkers capture the Ruffians, hiding somewhere in our own minds. It means much to have them brought before us for judgment, and happy is the man who is wise enough to take them outside the city of his mind and execute them. Nothing else or less will do. To show them any mercy is to invite misery and disaster. They are ruthless, and must be dealt with ruthlessly and at once.

If we parley with them, if we soften toward them, we ourselves may be turned into ruffians. Good but foolish Fellowcrafts came near being intrigued into a hideous crime. 'If the right eye offend, pluck it out,' said the greatest of Teachers. Only a celestial surgery will save the whole body from infection and moral rot. We dare not make terms with evil, else it will dictate to us before we are aware of it.

One does not have to break the head of a brother in order to be a Ruffian. One can break his home. One can slay his good name. The amount of polite and refined ruffianism that goes on about us every day is appalling Watchfulness is wisdom. Only a mind well tiled, with a faithful inner guard ever at his post, may hope to keep the ruffian spirit out of your heart and mind. No wise man dare be careless or take any chances with the thoughts and feelings and motives he admits into the lodge of the mind, whereof he is master.

So let us live, watch and work, until death, the last Ruffian, whom none can escape, lays us low, assured that even the, dark dumb hour, which brings a dreamless sleep about our couch, will not be able to keep us from the face of God, whose strong grip will free us and lift us out of shadows into the Light; out of dim phantoms into the Life Eternal that cannot die.

Reprinted from the Indiana Freemason.