The Ancient Modern
Returning to a Symbolic Worldview / Joshua Alan Sturgill
The word Symbol has become very confused in contemporary discourse—whether religious, literary or philosophical. And because this word is so vitally important for understanding the thought of the ancient world (and hence, the whole backdrop of our own ways of thinking), we might take just a moment to define “symbol” and distinguish it from related words. Etymologically, we have the word “symbol” from Greek through Latin: sun (syn) “with” + ballein (bolum) “to throw” = “thrown together.”
Originally, this was a very potent idea. A true symbol is not something which points to something other than itself or beyond itself. If an object or idea points to something other, it is a sign, not a symbol. The distinguishing feature of a symbol is that it participates in or carries or is connected to something greater of which it is a part.
A stop sign, for instance, is a mere sign. It is not itself the act of stopping; it indicates a place to stop. The “tip of the iceberg” however, could be said to be a symbol of an iceberg. It looks like ice, it indicates a larger whole and it is organically/ontologically connected to the iceberg. A mansion could be called a symbol of wealth because it has its own value and reveals the wealth of the owner. Similarly, we once used the word symbol to refer to a creed or set of beliefs. The Nicene Creed is called the “Symbol of the Faith” precisely because it both is and refers to Christian belief.
These distinctions are important, because strictly speaking, our culture no longer believes in Symbols. To have a symbol, there must be some kind of hierarchy of being, some kind of metaphysics. There must be greaters in which lessers can participate. Or, if this kind of undemocratic language is uncomfortable, there must be invisibles to which visibles refer. But we no longer believe in the invisible. We have only matter and energy. If we happen to not see something, we only need the right scientific instrument to make it appear—an x-ray machine or infrared goggles.
In the study of literature, this confusion of sign and symbol (leading altogether to the loss of symbol) severely restricts our understanding and appreciation of myth, story, poetics. For the ancient world, story-as-symbol meant a participation (and thus a transformation) through hearing or seeing the work of art. The work of art was the skin of a real body, the window of a real house.
In contrast, we now have entertainment and excitement. We do not expect to be transformed by an encounter with art. We do not think we should live differently when we encounter a great philosophy. That we should convert or conform to the Great Ideas no longer occurs to us. The Great Ideas are just stop signs—we might pause, but then carry on as usual.
In religion, the confusion of sign and symbol means that (at least in the Christian traditions) involvement in the Liturgy is limited to our being spectators. We might kneel, but the disposition of our souls doesn’t change. We might sing a happy song, but not let go of our concerns. We might take communion, but it will only be a “memorial” of something that happened once upon a time.
The return to a Symbolic Worldview means re-learning both the interconnectedness of visible things and the interconnectedness of the visible with the transcendent or universal. Of course, this means a reawakening to the whole notion of transcendence and universality.
I have observed that many things, from widespread psychological depressions to the environmental crisis, can be traced to the loss of the Symbolic Worldview. If there is nothing greater than what we see or feel in a moment, then we are certainly justified in being depressed. If the earth has no symbolic value, if it does not connect us to heaven because it is not connected to heaven, then we are justified in exploiting it. If we are happy or if we conserve, these will, in their turn, only be because present circumstance is good, or we want to sustain “resources”—which is to say—no Ideal, no participation, no sacredness.
The return to Symbolism can only be done with re-immersion in the literary (artistic), philosophical (metaphysical) and religious (devotional) worlds. We may speak of them as separate spheres, but they are deeply interconnected. We should read the stories and poetry that move us, and allow ourselves to be changed. We should consider Great Ideas and adjust our behavior accordingly. We should embrace religious traditions that have simple commands, meaningful sacraments and beautiful art-forms—and engage these traditions with others who likewise are seeking Union.
The alternative is the complete flattening of our understanding of the Real. Our intellects, our goals, our inner lives—all reduced to a meaningless series of choices and impressions we do not understand because they are not Symbolic in the deepest sense.