Probably a French invention
Freemasonry, which was instituted in London at the beginning of the 18th century and is still in operation, has only three grades: Apprentice, journeyman, Master.
Even if some ancient texts seem to refer to a possible evolution beyond the first three grades, it seems that the appearance of the high grades is essentially due to the will of the French Lodges (and especially Bordeaux) to complete the three initial grades by incorporating references to all sorts of legends, tales and historical events "revisited"!
Apart from the emulation rite, heir to the first Masonic rites, which has retained the tradition of three grades, practically all other Masonic rites have more than three grades.
From this abundance of initiatives, specific to this period of the 18th century, the filter of History will essentially keep only one which will have a worldwide destiny and will be known under the acronym of RE2A, that is to say the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.
At the origin of this rite there is a Bordeaux merchant, Etienne Morin, who, after many adventures, found himself in the West Indies in the 1760s and developed a first rite with multiple degrees; this model will be taken up by American freemasons and, after modifications, will be constituted this rite at 33 degrees in 1801, inspired by the Great Constitutions signed by King Frederick II of Prussia on May 1, 1786.
The development of this rite will give rise to a real craze that will durably transform the Masonic landscape and encourage other masons to create other multigrade rites or to modify existing ones.
A disputed interest
From its inception, the AABR aroused real circumspection. One finds the trace of it in the preface of Le Thuileur de l'Ecossisme published in 1815. (see opposite excerpts from the preface)
Reasons for success
In each era, specific reasons can be found, but overall, it seems to me that the global success of the AAEN can be understood by three elements that we find today:
- The AABR as an instrument for the popularization of an esoteric culture: although all serious authors agree that there are no new and original elements in the Masonic rituals, in general and of the REAA in particular, that could astonish human thought, it is clear that many Masons see in the themes "flown over" in the so-called higher grades of the REAA a philosophical "opening" that changes the symbolism of the blue grades and that presents a certain attractiveness for those who have not been able to take an interest in them until now. In a way, everything happens as if the higher workshops had allowed a popularization of traditional sciences and even of certain esoteric approaches; and this capacity to offer this popularization is accomplished within the framework of a relative democratization of access to the lodges.
- The REAA as an element of selection: Any human organization induces levels of power. By creating this mode of selection, the higher workshops indirectly facilitate the path to power by creating a selection among brothers and sisters; beyond the intellectual interest, the stirring caused by the functioning of the higher ranks breaks the compartmentalization of the lodges which are caulked in their orients! This intermixing favours the circulation of information, the formation of friendships and even clans! From a purely internal power we drift towards the levels of social power.
- The REAA as an element of global Masonic stability: Faced with the difficulties in the functioning of the obediences, it is understandable that some minds may be concerned to see Freemasonry become a "skin of sorrow". The globalization of the REAA and its relative stability may have been important arguments to allow the Supreme Councils to play a palliative role in the face of the impotence of the obediences.
All this shows, if there was need, how complex the problem is and how great the responsibility of the lodges and obediences is to ensure that the Masonic ideal is promoted and that its divulgation is carried out in authentic and sincere conditions.
A success that creates a problem
The organization of the rite is the supreme council; given the propensity to want to seek pretexts for division, which had to happen happened, and conflicts in ruptures and creating competition, the beautiful unity of the Grand Orient de France will fly in pieces to lead to a multiplication of obediences and ... supreme councils!
It is only in England where the authority of the United Grand Lodge has managed to maintain itself at the price of some concessions to the "side degrees"!
Even today, it is clear that the balance of power between the Supreme Councils and the obediences is fragile and although all this happens "discreetly", it is clear that the Supreme Councils of the REAA play, whatever the obediences, a significant influence on the functioning of the obediences.
What's the point?
Whatever the rank, a Masonic lodge functions in the same way: a ritual, symbols, speeches more or less codified. What changes, of course, are the rituals of the different ranks which incorporate legends and characters.
Most of the rites that have high grades are based on the Christian tradition and the initiation of Jesus Christ. What makes their originality is therefore in line with the logic of the rite and all its grades: but who today can claim to be able to know the logical and complete symbolic content of a rite of 33 grades and for other rites of nearly 100 grades?
All the more so as, of this number of grades, only a few are communicated (less than 10 including the first 3 for the AAAS)! In the end, a Freemason initiated at the 1st degree in a lodge working at the REAA has little hope of reaching the 33rd degree before dying (not to mention the budget that this implies). This means that the majority of brothers and sisters working at the REAA have no idea of the logic of their rite and they practice a symbolism that they will not be able to understand! All this is ridiculous!
Moreover, as has been said, the logic of a rite with high grades is to give full importance to the jurisdiction which governs the whole rite, that is to say the supreme councils; obedience loses credibility, all the more so if, in order to accommodate the maximum number of members, it authorises the practice of several rites!
It is understandable that in these conditions the governance of the Masonic Order has become "Kafkaesque" and that secular temptations have found in these "assemblies" convenient pretexts to be able to satisfy themselves!
As it is written in the thuileur of ecossism, all the value of the Masonic approach is contained in the first three grades where we are taught to seek a truth that gives an ethical meaning to the necessary universal fraternity!
Today, only three-grade rites offer real coherence and authenticity!