I edited this from my initial post.
I'm reading the ritual book of the Scottish Rite degrees as Albert Pike revised them for the first time, in 1857, recently republished as Magnum Opus, or the Great Work. I recommend this book to any Scottish Rite Mason. The degree work really is astonishing, and the brave soul who endured these versions of the Perfect Master (5°), Confidential Secretary (6°), Knight Elu of Nine (9°), or Royal Arch (13°) degrees must have been mind-blown by what he experienced (I'm currently reading the 14° ritual, so I would imagine that there are further surprises up the road).
Reading the "Legend, History, Etc." for the Grand, Elect, Perfect and Sublime Mason (14°) degree, I came upon the following passage:
They admitted many into the order, made known to them its truths, and taught them its duties. For a long time they were wisely cautious to admit none but proper persons, who could appreciate the true purposes and objects of the Royal Craft. But by degrees the inferior grades of Masonry were so spread abroad, that men were indiscriminately admitted without due inquiry; and it was forgotten that Masonry was not a popular, but a select and exclusive institution. Improper men gained admission. It became no privilege, nor any mark of honour, to be even a Master Mason; dissensions grew rife among the members; ambition, entering in, coveted rank and honours, the secrets were improperly divulged, and Blue Masonry fell into contempt.
...Masonry continued to degenerate; candidates were admitted without due inquiry, and for the sake of revenue alone; the degrees were conferred with too great rapidity, and without a knowledge of the principles, or even of the work of the preceding degrees, on the part of Candidates; men of little intellect and information swarmed in the order, and debased and degraded it; others joined it merely through idle curiosity, and wholly degraded and set at naught their obligations; frivolous ceremonies were multiplied and new degrees invented, and large bodies of men calling themselves Masons threw off their allegiance, pretended to a knowledge of the True Word, and invented new Rites; so that the Temple of Symbolical Masonry became a mere arena of strife and a house of contention.
This is powerful stuff. Pike wrote this in 1857, a decade after the clamor from the Morgan Affair had died down. The Anti-Masonic Party had folded back into the Know-Knothings and other Nativist movements, and men were nervously, tentatively re-inhabiting their lodge rooms and doing degree work again. Why was Pike so angry at this time? In the ritual of the previous degrees, he mentions the York Rite, the French Rite, the Rites of Misraim and the Rite of Perfection without disparaging any of them (although he claims the Scottish Rite is "uniting the excellencies and rejecting the defects of the others."), so he doesn't object to extra-3° degrees per se. I wonder what he would think of one-day classes, PR campaigns, and such. I also feel a need to defend the Shrine here: there is a place for frivolity in Masonry.
Pike is walking a knife-edge danger of hypocrisy here, it should be pointed out. In the lecture, he explains that the purpose of the Perfection Degrees (4°-14°) is to safeguard Masonry that has knowledge of the True Name (or the Lost Word) from vulgarization and trivialization. But there is nothing stopping his Scottish Rite, or any other appendant body, from being exactly what he warns us against here. Also, every contemporary mason is taught that the Master Mason degree (3°) is the highest degree in masonry, and that no degree offered by any appendant body is superior to the Master Mason degree. We have all met masons who disagree: who tell us as soon as we are raised that the York Rite, or the Scottish Rite, or the Shrine is where true Masonry exists, and that the Blue Lodge is a joke. These brothers do no credit to their appendant body, nor to their Blue Lodge. Without the Blue Lodge, men aren't masons.
I'm fascinated with this passage by Pike, but it also makes me uncomfortable (not the only thing he wrote that does). It almost reads like a more fiery version of Dwight Smith, or his contemporary successors, except I'm much more sympathetic to them in this task than to Pike because they seek to fix the root of Freemasonry rather than the branch. Pike is taking me on a journey, and I'm not sure where it leads, but I cannot imagine that my loyalty to my Blue Lodge will wane before I get there. I trust that when his whole course is revealed, it will harmonize with my Blue Lodge work, rather than conflict with it.
Anyways, it got me thinking, and I wanted to share.