Square and Compass

The square and compass are often used to form a symbol associated with Freemasonry. They are tools traditionally used in architecture, masonry, and and carpentry. I remember using similar instruments in school for geometry and technical drawing. We used compasses, rulers, T-squares, protractors, and drafting machines. However, This wasn’t really enough for me to intuitively grasp what the compass and square might mean as symbols.

In many ways, a symbol is in the eye of the beholder. What the square and compass mean in masonry vary from person to person, and lodge to lodge. It will not be the exactly the same as what is meant by latter-day saint symbols. However, Freemasonry was popular at the time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was formed, and understanding what these symbols meant to Freemasons and others gives illuminating cultural context to latter-day saint symbols.

The connection between the symbols and meanings has never been especially clear to me. These symbols are briefly explained to latter-day saints, but this was not always the case. I am glad David O. McKay’s descriptions have been shared in the temple for many years now. But I am not addressing LDS-specific interpretations in this post, so let’s start with a quote about what it means to Freemasons.

“The three great lights in Masonry are the Holy Bible, square, and compasses, which are thus explained: The Holy Bible is the rule and guide of our faith and practice; the square, to square our actions; The compasses, to circumscribe and keep us within bounds with all mankind, but more especially to a brother Mason”.

Duncan’s Ritual of Freemasonry

The Square

The square was a masonry tool used in the middle ages. Two flat-edged arms joined at a perfect right-angle (90°). The word right has a history of meaning “a straight line”, like in the phrase “She looked me square in the eye.” When a weight is attached to the end of a string (so a plum-bob), the string hangs straight down and forms a line that makes a right-angle with level ground. The word square and right overlap a lot. The verb square, especially with regards to stone, means to cut to a right-angle. The geometric shape called a square and four right-angle corners. The list goes on.

The words’ symbolic use was so common that they are included in standard dictionary definitions and used in common idioms. Think of idioms like “fair and square”, “three square meals”, “on the square”, or “we’re all square”. Right as the opposite of left, has it’s origins here. The right hand was the correct hand (sorry lefties). Right and left politics draw on this symbolic use of the term right (again, sorry lefties. Must have been named by some right-wingers).

In Freemasonry, the square (the tool) symbolizes righteousness. We can square our actions. To choose the right means to align ourselves with God’s standard. We build ourselves, like masons build structures. Buildings are more structurally sound when angles are properly squared.

The Compass

A compass has a pair of legs of equal length, fixed together at their apex by an adjustable hinge. It is used to draw circles and arcs, and for taking or marking off distances along a line. Together with a straight edge (like on a ruler or square), people can bisect lines, triangulate, and construct various geometric shapes without any numerical calculations.

I couldn’t tie down the origin of the phrase moral compass, but it seems to work as well for navigational compasses as drawing compasses. A compass (for drawing) is sometimes used as a symbol of precision and discernment. To Masons, the compass symbolizes drawing a boundary line around our desires and passions, which we should not cross. It encompasses moral behaviour. It represents our resolve to keep within that circle of self-restraint. It represents Godly moderation.

Recovering Lost Symbolism

This short exploration of these symbols and Freemasonry revealed to me that they actually have much broader roots. I’m not sure if I was the only one, but I wasn’t really aware of the context behind these symbols. Their meaning was, to me at least, somewhat lost. This short investigation was eye-opening for me. I hope it is helpful for you too.

Did you learn any thing new? Is there anything you would like to add? Please comment below.