A compass is an instrument you take into the woods with you so that you don't get lost. Compasses are a Masonic working tool - see below.
- Source: MasonicDictionary.com
This is the plural of compass, from the Latin corn, meaning "together," and passus, meaning a pass, step, way, or route. Contrivance, cunning, encompass, pass, pace derive from the same roots. A circle was once described as a compass because all the steps in making it were ''together," that is, of the same distance from the center; and the word, natural transition, became applied to the familiar two-legged' instrument for drawing a circle. Some Masons use the word in the singular, as in "square and compass," hut the plural form "square and compasses" would appear to he preferable, especially since it immediately distinguishes the working tool from the mariner's compass, with which it might be otherwise confused by the uninformed.
- Source: 100 Words in Masonry
As in Operative Freemasonry, the compasses are used for the measurement of the architect's plans, and to enable him to give those just proportions which will ensure beauty as well as stability to his work; so, in Speculative Freemasonry, is this important implement symbolic of that even tenor of deportment, that true standard of rectitude which alone can bestow happiness here and felicity hereafter.
Hence are the compasses the most prominent emblem of virtue, the true and only, measure of a Freemason's life and conduct. As the Bible gives us light on our duties to God, and the square illustrates our duties to our neighborhood and Brother, so the compasses give that additional light which is to instruct us in the duty we owe to ourselves-the great, imperative duty of circumscribing our passions, and keeping our desires within due bounds. "It is ordained," says the philosophic Burke, "in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate passions cannot be free; their passions forge their fetters." Those Brethren who delight to trace our emblems to an astronomical origin, find in the compasses a symbol of the sun, the circular pivot representing the body of the luminary, and the diverging legs his rays.
In the earliest rituals of the eighteenth century, the compasses are described as a part of the furniture of the Lodge, and are said to belong to the Master.
Some change will be found in this respect in the ritual of the present day (see Square and Compasses).
The word is sometimes spelled and pronounced compass, which is more usually applied to the magnetic needle and circular dial or card of the mariner from which he directs his course over the seas, or the similar guide of the airman when seeking his destination across unknown territory.
- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry
In our study of the Square we saw that it is nearly always linked with the
Compasses, and these old emblems, joined with the Holy Bible, are the Great
Lights of the Craft. If the Lodge is an "Oblong Square" and built upon the
Square (as the earth was thought to be in olden time), over it arches the
Sky, which is a circle. Thus Earth and Heaven are brought together in the
Lodge - the earth where man goes forth to his labor, and the heaven to
which he aspires. In other words, the light of Revelation and the Law of
Nature are like the two points of the Compasses within which our life is
set under a canopy of Sun and Stars.
No symbolism can be more simple, more profound, more universal, and it
becomes more wonderful the longer one ponders it. Indeed, if Masonry is in
any sense a religion, it is Universe Religion, in which all men can unite.
Its principles are as wide as the world, as high as the sky. Nature and
revelation blend in its teaching; its morality is rooted in the order of
the world, and its roof is the blue vault above. The Lodge, as we are apt
to forget, is always open to the sky, whence come those influences which
exalt and ennoble the life of man. Symbolically, at least, it has no
rafters but the arching heavens to which, as sparks ascending seek the sun,
our life and labor tend. Of the heavenly side of Masonry the Compasses are
the Symbol, and they are perhaps the most spiritual of our working tools.
As has been said, the Square and the Compasses are nearly always together,
and that is true as far back as we can go. In the sixth book of the
philosophy on Mencius, in China, we find these words: "A Master Mason, in
teaching Apprentices, makes use of the Compass and the Square. Ye who are
engaged in the pursuit of wisdom must also make use of the Compass and the
Square. Note the order of the words: the Compass has first place, as it
should have to a Master Mason. In the oldest classic of China, "The Book
of History," dating back two thousand years before our era, we find the
Compasses employed without the Square: "Ye Officers of the Government,
apply the Compasses." Even in that far off time these symbols had the same
meaning they have for us today, and they seem to have been interpreted in
the same way.
While in the order of the Lodge the Square is first, in point of truth it
is not the first in order. The Square rests upon the Compasses before the
Compasses rest upon the Square. That is to say, just as a perfect square
is a figure that can be drawn only within a circle or about a circle, so
the earthly life of man moves and is built within the circle of Divine life
and law and love which surrounds, sustains, and explains it. In the Ritual
of the Lodge we see man, hoodwinked by the senses, slowly groping his way
out of darkness, seeking the light of morality and reason. But he does so
by the aid of inspiration from above, else he would live untroubled by a
spark Some deep need, some dim desire brought him to the door of the
Lodge, in quest of a better life and a clearer vision. Vague gleams,
impulses, intimations reached him in the night of Nature, and he set forth
and finding a friendly hand to help knocked at the door of the House of
As an Apprentice a man is, symbolically, in a crude, natural state, his
divine life covered and ruled by his earthly nature. As a Fellowcraft he
has made one step toward liberty and light and the nobler elements in him
are struggling to rise above and control his lower, lesser nature. In the
Sublime Degree of a Master Mason - far more sublime than we yet realize -
by human love, by the discipline of tragedy, and still more by the Divine
help the divine in him has subjugated the earthly, and he stands forth
strong, free, and fearless, ready to raise stone upon stone until naught is
wanting. If we examine with care the relative positions of the Square and
Compasses as he advanced through the Degrees, we learn a parable and a
prophecy of what the Compasses mean in the life of a Mason.
Here too, we learn what the old philosopher of China meant when he urged
Officers of the Government to "apply the Compasses,: since only men who
have mastered themselves can really lead or rule others. Let us now study
the Compasses apart from the Square, and try to discover what they have to
teach us. There is no more practical lesson in Masonry and it behooves us
to learn it and lay it to heart. As the Light of the Holy Bible reveals
our relation and duty to God, and the Square instructs us in our duties to
our Brother and neighbor, so the Compasses teach us the obligation which we
owe ourselves. What that obligation is needs to be made plain; it is the
primary, imperative, everyday duty of circumscribing his passions, and
keeping his desires within due bounds. As Most Excellent King Solomon said
long ago: "Better is he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a
In short, it is the old triad, without which character loses its symmetry,
and life may easily end in chaos and confusion. It has been put in many
ways, but never better than in the three great words; self-knowledge, self-
reverence, self-control; and we cannot lose any one of the three and keep
the other two. To know ourselves, our strength, our weakness, our
limitations, is the first principle of wisdom, and a security against many
a pitfall and blunder. Lacking such knowledge, or disregarding it, a man
goes too far, loses control of himself, and by that very fact loses, in
some measure, the self-respect which is the corner stone of a character.
If he loses respect for himself, he does not long keep his respect for
others, and goes down the road to destruction, like a star out of orbit, or
a car into the ditch.
The old Greeks put the same truth into a trinity of maximums: "Know
thyself; in nothing too much; think as a mortal; and it made them masters
of the art of life and the life of art. Hence their wise Doctrine of the
Limit, as a basic idea both of life and of thought, and their worship of
the God of bounds, of which the Compasses are a symbol. It is the wonder
of our human life that we belong to the limited and to the unlimited.
Hemmed in, hedged about, restricted, we long for a liberty without rule or
limit. Yet limitless liberty is anarchy and slavery. As in the great word
of Burke, "It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that a man
of intemperate passions cannot be free; his passions forge their fetters."
Liberty rests upon law. The wise man is he who takes full account of both,
who knows how, at all points, to qualify the one by the other, as the
Compasses, if he uses them aright, will teach him how to do.
Much of our life is ruled for us whether we will or not.
The laws of nature throw about us their restraining bands, and there is no
place where their wit does not run. The laws of the land make us aware
that our liberty is limited by the equal rights and liberties of others.
Our neighbors, too, if we fail to act toward him squarely may be trusted to
look after his own rights. Custom, habit, and the pressure of public
opinion are impalpable forces which we dare not altogether defy. These are
so many roads from which our passions and appetites stray at-our-peril.
But there are other regions of life where personality has free play, and
they are the places where most of our joy and sorrow lie. It is in the
realm of desire, emotion, motive, in the inner life where we are freest,
and most alone, that we need a wise and faithful use of the Compasses.
How to use the Compasses is one of the finest of all arts, asking for the
highest skill of a Master Mason. If he is properly instructed, he will
rest one point in the innermost center of his being, and with the other
draw a circle beyond which he will not go, until he is ready and able to go
farther. Against the littleness of his knowledge he will set the depth of
his desire to know, against the brevity of his earthly life the reach of
his spiritual hope. Within a wise limit he will live and labor and grow,
and when he reaches the outer rim of the circle he will draw another, and
attain to a full-orbed life, balance, beautiful, and finely poised. No
wise man dare forget the maxim "In nothing too much," for there are
situations where a word too much, a step too far, means disaster. If he
has a quick tongue, a hot temper, a dark mood, he will apply the Compasses,
shut his weakness within the circle of his strength, and control it.
Strangely enough, even a virtue, if unrestrained and left to itself, may
actually become a vice. Praise, if pushed too far, becomes flattery. Love
often ends in a soft sentimentalism, flabby and foolish. Faith, if carried
to the extreme by the will to believe, ends in over-belief and
superstition. It is the Compasses that help us to keep our balance, in
obedience to the other Greek maxim: "Think as a mortal" - that is, remember
the limits of human thought. An old mystic said that God is a circle whose
center is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. But such an idea is
all a blur Our minds can neither grasp nor hold it. Even in our thought
about God we must draw a circle enclosing so much of His Nature as we can
grasp and realize, enlarging the circle as our experience and thought and
vision expand. Many a man loses all truth in his impatient effort to reach
final truth. It is the man who fancies that he has found the only truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and who seeks to impose his
dogma upon others, who becomes the bigot, the fanatic, the persecutor.
Here, too, we must apply the Compasses, if we would have our faith fulfill
itself in fellowship. Now we know in part - a small part, it may be, but
it is real as far at it goes - though it be as one who sees in a glass
darkly. The promise is that if we are worthy and well qualified, we shall
see God face to face and know ever as we are known. But God is so great,
so far beyond my mind and yours, that if we are to know him truly, we must
know Him Together, in fellowship and fraternity. And so the Poet-Mason was
right when he wrote:
"He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in."