The Future of Secrecy

The basis for the Fraternity’s practices, including maintaining secrets, should be grounded in solid reasoning. For instance, early masons protected their secrets fiercely because they included proprietary construction methods that if learned would lead to the advantage of individuals not necessarily entitled. Likewise, the use of a secret grip for Beta Theta Pi can enable members from different universities and experiences to identify each other and share in the joys and privileges that accompany membership. This is a very practical and defensible use of secrecy. In similar light, the Fraternity should have good reasons for keeping anything, including the three principles and seven obligations secret. If there are none, they should not remain secret for the sake of tradition.

Fortunately, there are no longer negative external consequences. There are no expulsions awaiting students, no likelihood of being forced into becoming an honor society as Phi Beta Kappa was and no grave decline in membership on the horizon. In fact, Beta Theta Pi would directly benefit from more external constituents such as parents, advisors and university administrators holding members accountable to what they promised to do.

Regardless, that desire to be “regarded with a degree of romance by the uninitiated” remains. Secrecy feeds the basic human psychology of wanting to belong to something special. It entrusts members to protect secrets passed down for generations in that “long illustrious line” of Betas. If for no other reason this prevalent desire may be sufficient to justify the survival of secrets.

In an 1843 letter, Founder John Reily Knox, Miami 1839, described the inspiration for founding a secret organization, “There was an interest about the actions of men who bound themselves together by vows which were never broken, and who pursued the great objects of their association with an energy that never tired, with a zeal which knew not self, and with a devotedness that never counted gold.” Knox’s interest seemed not to be specifically in having secrets or being a secret society, but in what that society could accomplish through association. The power of Beta Theta Pi remains today in the friendships, shared experiences, growth and personal joy enjoyed through seeing the values of the Fraternity come to life, not the isolated knowledge or understanding of those values.

Interestingly, it was reported by a close friend later in life that Samuel Taylor Marshall, Miami 1840, author of the original constitution in 1839, never “got over” the publication of the constitution in 1879. He could not agree with the reasons for publishing something he viewed as always intended to remain a secret. Are our own opinions rooted in a similar attachment to our experience like Brother Marshall?

A rogue member publishing the principles and obligations on the internet would certainly be inconsistent with one of the obligations and the practices of the Fraternity. But, if someday the entire Fraternity chose to make them public, in an effort to increase knowledge and application of the Ritual, would the luster of the black enamel be forever lost? The charge for all Betas is to ask just why secrecy is important, what should remain secret and whether the Fraternity would be better off in such a future.