Yesterday morning I returned from Masonic Week. It was too many cigars, too much red meat, and a notebook full of ideas. I'll be unraveling them as the week progresses. But last night I found this article, a speech given by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Some of the ideas he presented had some Masonic crossover for me:
When I arrived here tonight, I was told that this very lectern from which I am speaking is the one from which John Kennedy gave the speech you saw earlier on tonight's video. Within the space business, Kennedy is probably best remembered for his "Man, Moon, Decade" speech, which, by the way, is also a classic of program management. And it's a great speech. But the JFK quote about space that I love more than anything in the world, because it evokes exactly the things I'm talking about here tonight, was the one he gave from this lectern at Rice University in September of 1962, when he said "We choose to go to the moon, and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." I'll say it again: "not because they are easy, but because they are hard".
The cathedral builders knew that reason. They were doing something that required a far greater percentage of their gross domestic product than we will ever put into the space business, and they knew it was hard. We know it too. We look back across 600 or 800 years of time, and we are still awed by what they did. What is it that Americans make sure to see when they go to Europe? Who goes to Europe and does not, at some point, see the cathedrals? We are still awed across the centuries by what they accomplished.
To me, the irony is that when we do hard things for the right reasons – for the Real Reasons – we end up actually satisfying all the goals of the Acceptable Reasons. And we can see that, too, in the cathedrals, if we look for it.
What did the cathedral builders get? They didn't just build cathedrals and then stop there. They began to develop civil engineering, the core discipline for any society if it wishes to have anything more than thatched huts. They learned how to build high walls and to have them stand up straight. They learned how to put a roof across a long span. They learned which materials would work, and which ones would not. And by finding the limits on how high walls could be, how broad roof spans could be, and what materials wouldn't work, they created the incentive to solve those problems, so that they could build things beyond cathedrals, so that they could, fundamentally, build Western civilization.
They gained societal advantages that were probably even more important than learning how to build walls and roofs. They learned to embrace deferred gratification, not just on an individual level where it is a crucial element of maturity, but on a societal level where it is equally vital. The people who started the cathedrals didn't live to finish them; such projects required decades. The society as a whole had to be dedicated to the completion of those projects. To be able to do that for cathedrals was to be able to do it in other areas as well. We owe Western civilization as we know it today to that kind of thinking – the ability to have a constancy of purpose across years and decades.
The medieval builders formed guilds, establishing professional trades beyond that of agriculture. Now, agriculture is at the root of human technology. Nothing good happens to human beings without getting beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and agriculture is that first step. But the second step is to be able to build physical works that didn't previously exist. The organization and systemization of that in Western society today began in medieval Europe, with the cathedral builders. They learned how to organize large projects, a key to modern society. And, probably most important of all, the cathedrals had to be, for decades at a time, a focus of civic accomplishment and energy. A society, a nation, a civilization, needs such foci.
What is the third step? I have an idea what Griffin would say from a scientific/NASA point of view, but what would a Freemason think?