What is 'Esoteric Freemasonry'?

Before going any further it must be pointed out and emphasised that Freemasonry is, and always has been, primarily a service and social club.  The vast majority of Freemasons look to the Craft to be a vehicle for aiding and assisting less fortunate members of their community as well as engage in fellowship with like minded men from all walks of life.  Through its rituals Freemasonry encourages a Mason to stand proud, be honest and virtuous and display courage and integrity in all his dealings and examine the world around him to understand the sublime mysteries of creation better. 

The origins of Freemasonry are not known with any degree of certainty and Masonic scholars are divided as to its possible genesis.  On the one hand there are the adherents of the dominant ‘Authentic School’ of Masonic history, who believe that all the rites, rituals and moral teachings ultimately derive from speculation into the forms and workings of operative masons by operative masons, that is Freemasonry arose from the philosophic musings of a medieval trade union.  On the other hand is the minority fringe ‘Esoteric School’ who claim all sorts of antecedents for Freemasonry, claiming origin in the rites of ancient Egypt, the Knights Templars or the Rosicrucians to name but three possibilities.

 The simple truth is that we do not know where Freemasonry originated.  The weight of objective, historical evidence tends to support the Authentic School, but within Freemasonry is a strong thread or current of esoteric thought which can not be comfortably accounted for by the adherents of the Authentic School.  Esoteric thought, in this context, is speculation into the workings of God, the Universe and Man from a philosophic perspective that flowered in the underground milieus of the European Enlightenment.  In short the thread reveals a 17th century Christian ‘occult’ subtext within the rites of Freemasonry that draws on the Kabbalah, Alchemy and Astrology in particular. 

Before any Christian (or Freemason) starts to leap up and down howling in rage it must be noted that in the 17th Century the disciplines of Religion, Science and the Occult were only just starting to be considered as distinct and separate features of the intellectual landscape.  Many of the leading luminaries of the Enlightenment were committed Christians who examined what we would call the occult arts.  One of the best examples of a man who saw no conflict between science, God and mystic thought was Sir Isaac Newton, who was not only a staunch Christian and (obviously) a great and hugely important scientist and mathematician but was also a practising alchemist for a large portion of his life.

It must be noted, and indeed emphasised, that this 'occult subtext' is just that, a subtext.  The elements within Freemasonry that can justly be called 'occult' are rare, obscure and disjointed.