This is a question I have been asked by anti-Masons and non-Masons alike...although mostly by the former. Not meaning to sound hostile, but being completely honest, this question is one of the most annoying asked me concerning Freemasonry not because it's bad to ask questions, but, more often than not, it is meant as an attempt to discredit a Mason if they are challenging a myth or lie about Freemasonry. However, to me, it is an indication of one's ignorance, whether innocently or intentionally, concerning how Freemasonry is structured not only in the degrees of Freemasonry but it in the hierarchy and governance of the Craft. The purpose of this article will be to discuss this misconception.
To start off, as Freemasons, we do not use "level" as an indication of one's progress through Freemasonry. For the Blue Lodge and several other concordant/appendant bodies of Freemasonry, the term used is "degree", but you sometimes see "order" or "grade" used. A degree can be defined as "one of the progressive stages of advancement in the lodge and conferred using a ritual ceremony" (paraphrasing off of Chris Hodapp's definition).
Freemasonry does use the term "level", but it is used in a different context. In Freemasonry, the Level is a symbol of equality and in old times was used by Operative Freemasonry to prove horizontals. It is used in Speculative Freemasonry as the jewel of the Senior Warden and symbolizes equality which is contradictory to this misconception where many think degree equates to rank.
How Freemasonry is Structured
Far too often when confronted by anti-Masons hold a belief that Freemasonry is a pyramid structure that paints a picture of anti-democratic, autocratic, and centralized government that controls every thought, word, and action of its members, and where the leaders of Freemasonry are those who have attained some fabled "higher degree" such as the 33°. If one spends any time on the Internet researching Freemasonry, you'll come across a picture similar to Figures 1 or 2. I've even seen anti-Masons take commonly used Masonic charts (see Figure 3) literally in that because a group is shown above others that they must be considered superior to those drawn below it.
In reality, Freemasonry consists of three degrees: Entered Apprentice (1°), Fellow Craft (2°), and Master Mason (3°). The Third Degree is considered the highest degree in Freemasonry while the degrees, orders, and grades of concordant and appendant bodies are considered complimentary not superior to the Third Degree. These first three degrees compose the main body and basic organizational unit of Freemasonry known as the Blue Lodge. The Blue Lodge is the center of activity from which all other Masonic organizations spring. The Blue Lodge is presided over by a Worshipful Master who is elected on an annual basis. Blue Lodges are subordinate to a Grand Lodge. A Grand Lodge is the overall governing body of Freemasonry in a given jurisdiction. Typically, a Grand Lodge's jurisdiction is based upon that area's civil government where Grand Lodges govern Blue Lodges within a particular national or state boundary. The Grand Lodge is presided over by a Most Worshipful Grand Master who is elected on a regular (most often annual) basis by the voting members of that Grand Lodge. There is no central body to oversee all of the Grand Lodges around the world; each one is sovereign and independent of the other. Each Grand Lodge chooses its own policies, rituals, practices, rules, and what other Grand Lodges it recognizes.
When one attains the Sublime Degree of Master Mason he has attained the highest degree in Freemasonry, but one can continue to seek further light by joining a concordant body such as the York Rite or Scottish Rite. The York Rite and Scottish Rite are often seen as two branches in competition, but in reality, they both seek to impart further Masonic light to an aspirant. It should be noted that while the Scottish Rite uses a numbering system, those degrees are not superior to the Master Mason degree.
The Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemason, or simply known as the Scottish Rite is perhaps the most known appendant body of Freemasonry, maybe second only to the Shriners. It confers a series of progressive degrees. This Rite is one of several appendant or concordant bodies in the Masonic fraternity. They confer from 4° to the 33°. These degrees build upon the ethical and moral teachings and philosophies offered in Craft Masonry, or more commonly known as the Blue Lodge, through dramatic presentations. These degrees are conferred by several controlling bodies: The Lodge of Perfection confers the 4° through the 14° and is presided over by a Venerable Master, the Chapter of Rose Croix confers the 15° through the 18° and is presided over by the Wise Master, the Council of Kadosh confers the 19° through the 30° and is presided over by a Commander of Kadosh, and the Consistory confers the 31° and 32° and is presided over by a Master of Kadosh. All of these bodies unite under a body referred to as a "Valley." These Valleys unite under an "Orient" which is presided over by a Sovereign Grand Inspector General (SGIG). These Orients fall under the auspices of a central authority known as a Supreme Council. In the United States there exist two Supreme Councils: Northern Jurisdiction and Southern Jurisdiction. For certain members who have given meritorious service to the community and to Freemasonry, the Rite may confer the 33°.
While the Scottish Rite is a unified body, the York Rite is more accurately described as a confederacy. The term York Rite is a misnomer though and should more accurately be called the American Rite as this rite is comprised of degrees and orders uniquely structured in America in comparison to that seen in such places as the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Scotland. The York Rite is composed of three main organizations that each operate with their own hierarchy and enjoy their own autonomy. These three bodies have united in a confederate system to ensure mutual continuation and prosperity. These three bodies are known as the Royal Arch Masonry, Cryptic Masonry, and Knights Templar. True to all 3-bodies of the York Rite, there is a local body, Grand body, and International body. For the Royal Arch, there is the Chapter, Grand Chapter, and General Grand Chapter. The presiding officer of each of these levels respectively is High Priest, Grand High Priest, and General Grand High Priest. For the Cryptic Masons, there is the Council, Grand Council, and General Grand Council. The presiding officer for each of these levels respectively is Illustrious Master, Most Illustrious Grand Master, and the Most Puissant General Grand Master. For the Knights Templar, there is the Commandery, Grand Commandery, and the Grand Encampment, Knights Templar, USA. The presiding officer for each of these levels respectively is Eminent Commander, Right Eminent Grand Commander, and the Most Eminent Grand Master.
I used the York Rite and Scottish rite as examples of the diverse nature of hierarchies in Freemasonry, but there are many other concordant and appendant orders with their own hierarchy. The authority and scope of each Masonic order are specified in their Constitution and By-Laws. And if it were not all confusing enough, I am speaking primarily to Freemasonry in the US. When you travel outside the US, there will be differences in the degrees conferred in some of the bodies, but my main points still remain the same.
Degree vs Rank
A Master Mason may choose to decide a concordant or appendant body such as the York Rite or Scottish Rite, but it is not required nor considered derogatory if he does not. If one does continue his journey into a concordant or appendant body, he may attain the highest honors one of those groups possesses, but those accolades do not translate to superiority or authority over Masons, not in those groups. There's also a misconception that degree equates to rank in Freemasonry. It doesn't. An office one holds in a Masonic group equates to rank, but that rank, with one exception, does not translate across to other groups. The exception is that of Most Worshipful Grand Master which is often accorded welcome and honored across Freemasonry.
I'll use Brother Joe Alexander, the Sovereign Grand Inspector General (SGIG) of Idaho, as an example. He sits as the ranking Scottish Rite Mason in Idaho, but when he visits a Lodge, he wouldn't be introduced as the SGIG, he'd be introduced as a Past Grand Master of our Grand Lodge. In the York Rite, he is a member and holds no particular rank.
Simply put, the degrees one has gone through simply show the steps and instruction a Mason has taken to help better himself and understand the world around him. The degree should not be seen as collectibles or for the end of the journey. once one attains any degree it is not the end, but a milestone in a career that should be noted for service to God, country, in one's fellow man.
Origin of the Misconception
So where does this misconception come from? One possible source of this misconception is the cherry-picked quote from Morals & Dogma:
The Blue Degrees [1º–3º] are but the outer court or portico of the Temple.
As I mention in Satan and Freemasonry, Pike remains the favorite "whipping boy" of the anti-Masonic movement who often exaggerates his importance and misquote Morals & Dogma. Anti-Masons go so far as to say that Moral & Dogma carries the weight of Masonic canon or law. It seems to me that most anti-Masons gloss over most of the book to include the Preface of the book where Pike states: "Everyone is entirely free to reject and dissent from whatsoever herein may seem to him to be untrue or unsound." This doesn't seem like a way to start a book that is supposedly the standard of knowledge by which all Masons must believe. Brothers Arturo de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris state, in Is It True What They Say About Freemasonry, "Just because Albert Pike was a brilliant ritualist, an able administrator, and a well-respected Mason doesn't mean all of his opinions are right." This again falls in line with most anti-Masons' lack of understanding or denial of what constitutes authority in Freemasonry. I have found that most anti-Masons quoting Pike have never actually read Morals & Dogma, but just copy and paste from some anti-Mason website.
The use of "level" when trying to discuss Mason's rank is a misnomer. We Masons do not use "level" when discussing advancement through Freemasonry. There are degrees, orders, and grades, but not levels. It's not degrees, but offices that equate to rank or authority in Freemasonry. As mentioned before, with the 3º being the highest degree in Freemasonry, all Masonic authority begins and ends with a Grand Lodge. To test this premise, one only needs to look at the implications of a Mason being expelled from the Blue Lodge versus being expelled from any other concordant or appendant body in Freemasonry. If I were to be expelled from the Shriners, I'd only lose membership in that group. If I were to be expelled from the Blue Lodge, I'd lose membership in every Masonic group.