In Part 2 ("Apert") of Anathem, Erasmas was guiding a tour and was explaining the story of a statue of Cnoüs:

"The central sculpture was more than six thousand years old; it had been a world-famous masterpiece for almost that long. [...] It was Cnoüs, aged but muscular, with long, wavy beared and hair, sprawled back against the gnarled roots of a tree, staring up in awe and astonishment. As if it to shield himself from vision, he had raised a hand, but could not resist the temptation to peek over it. Gripped in his other hand was a stylus. Tumbled at his feet were a ruler, a compass, and a tablet graven with precisely constructed circles and polygons.

[...] Everyone else—even I, who'd seen it many times—looked up to see what was having such an effect on poor old Cnoüs. The answer (at least, ever since the statue had been installed here) was an oculus, or hole at the apex of the Rotunda dome, shaped like an isosceles triangle, and letting in a beam of sunlight."

"Cnous was a master stonemason," I began. "On one ancient tablet, which was made before he had his vision, he is described by an adjective that literally means one who is elevated. This might mean either that he was especially good at being a stonemason or that he was some kind of holy man in the religion of his place and time. At the command of his king , he was building a temple to a god. The stone was quarried from a place a couple of miles upriver and floated down to the building site on the rafts."

Is Stephenson making a blatant reference to freemasonry, is he making a biblical reference, or is Cnous's back story a coincidence to masonic symbolism? I can't find much on this portion of the novel.

3 Answers 3


I don't believe that this is a "blatant reference to Freemasonry", although some parallels may be intentional.

However, some parallels would be almost unavoidable, given what Stephenson is attempting with the story of Cnoüs.

The idea of the story of Cnoüs is that it is the foundation for the path of the Avout, and the explanation for the creation of the Discipline and the Maths. It seems unavoidable that the backstory for a monastic order devoted to the study of math and science, organized at a fundamental level by mathematical concepts (Maths, Concents, etc.), would be heavily based in... mathematics.

Stonemasonry is one of the earliest professions to rely heavily upon a superior knowledge of mathematics, and rulers and compasses were basic tools of the trade.

While both of those have strong symbolism within Freemasonry, that's simply because Freemasonry started from the same foundation: stonemasons.

The compass, the ruler, and isosceles triangles all have roles within Masonic symbolism, but to my knowledge circles and polygons do not. All of these, however, have obvious mathematical symbolism, which is entirely congruent with the context of the story as the foundation for the path of the Avout.

There are other discrepancies, too.

While it is mentioned that Cnoüs was building a temple to a god, at the command of his king, the obvious Masonic parallel would be that of Hiram Abiff, who was in charge of building the Temple of Solomon. However, he was building that temple for two kings: King Solomon, and King Hiram, who were working together.

The idea of floating the stones down the river on rafts also has no corresponding place within the story of Hiram Abiff. Nor is there mention that I recall seeing of Hiram Abiff having any daughters, nor of him angering a king.


A motif in the novel is "carving something specific out of the undifferentiated potential," and the idea of left-over cast-off from sculpting work, generally. For example:

  1. Edharian Thousanders carving the Crag out of the bedrock using explosives and water-jet cutters
  2. Cord's dramatic introduction operating the five-axis mill, and her watch chain
  3. Emman's EK trigger, carved from a solid billet

This is contrasted with the Procians' existentialism in the second half of the novel.

Stonemasonry is an ancient example of "cashing in" the potential for the actual.

  • 1
    Do you have any evidence you can edit in that Stephenson meant these as references or are these just parallels you have found?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 23:11
  • If you're politely telling me this is too opinion-based, I appreciate you doing so tactfully! Do you mean, someone else saying what I'm saying? Do I need to add more examples of this theme to make my case iron-clad? Short of a notarized letter from Stephenson, I can't think of what might qualify as evidence. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 23:18

Socrates was a stonemason by trade. Cnous is clearly a combination of Socrates, the father of western philosophy and Abraham the father of Monotheism(debatable I know)

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