Words and Symbols

3 Pages from …, René Guénon

On how language itself can be a symbol of some higher truths, which are ”expressed outwardly," and - at its best - comprehended inwardly.

On the difference of language, which is "analytical and discursive, as is human reason", and symbolism, which is synthetic and intuitive.

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4 § Word and Symbol

We have previously had occasion to speak of the importance of symbolic forms in the transmission of traditional doctrinal teachings. We return to this subject in order to bring to it some complementary explanations and to show yet more explicitly the different points of view from which it can be looked at.

First of all, symbolism seems to us to be quite specially adapted to the needs of human nature, which is not exclusively intellectual but which needs a sensory basis from which to rise to higher levels. The human composite must be taken as it is, simultaneously one and multiple in its real complexity; this is what tends to be forgotten ever since Descartes claimed to establish a radical and absolute separation between soul and body.

Pure intelligences which are nothing other than intelligence certainly need no outward form and no expression in order to understand the truth, nor do they need them even for communicating to other pure intelligences what has been understood in the measure that this is communicable; but it is not so for man. Fundamentally, every expression, every formulation, whatever it may be, is a symbol of the thought which it expresses outwardly. In this sense, language itself is nothing other than symbolism. There can be no opposition, therefore, between the use of words and the use of figurative symbols; rather, these two modes of expression should be complementary one to another (moreover, they may in fact be combined, for primitively writing is ideographic and sometimes, as in China, it has always retained this characteristic).

Generally speaking, the form of language is analytical and ‘discursive’, as is human reason of which it is the true and fitting instrument and the flow of which it reproduces as exactly as possible. On the contrary, symbolism in the strict sense is essentially synthetic and thereby as it were intuitive, which makes it more apt than language to serve as a support for intellectual intuition which is above reason, and which must not be confused with that lower intuition to which numerous contemporary philosophers so often refer. Consequently, if one is not content merely to note a difference and if one wishes to speak of superiority, this superiority, whatever some may claim, will lie with synthetic symbolism which opens the way to truly unlimited conceptual possibilities. Language, on the contrary, fraught as it is with more definite and less supple meanings, always sets more or less narrow limits for the understanding. Therefore ↓

  1. Published in Regnabit, January 1926. with reference to an article by the Rev Felix Anizan entitled. ‘If We Knew How to Look’ (in the November 1925 {issue of the same journal). which insisted particularly on the importance and the value of the symbol of the Sacred Heart.

Therefore let no one say that symbolism is good only for the common man; it would be true to say the opposite; or better still, symbolism is equally good for all, because it helps everyone to understand the truth in question more or less completely and more or less profoundly, each according to the nature of his intellectual possibilities. It is thus that the highest truths, which would not be communicable or transmissible by any other means, can be communicated up to a certain point when they are, so to speak, incorporated in symbols which will hide them for many, no doubt, but which will manifest them in all their splendour to the eyes of those who can see.

Does this amount to saying that the use of symbols is a necessity? A distinction must be made here: as such and in an absolute way, no outward form is necessary; all are equally contingent and accidental in relation to that which they express or represent. Thus, according to the teachings of the Hindus, any figure, a statue for example which symbolizes this or that aspect of the Divinity, must be considered only as a ‘support’, a reference point for meditation. It is therefore simply an aid and nothing more.

A Vedic text makes a comparison in this respect which perfectly clarifies the function of symbols and of outward forms in general: these forms are like the horse which enables a man to make a journey more rapidly and with much less trouble than if he had to go on foot. No doubt, if this man did not have a horse at his disposal he could, in spite of everything, reach his goal: but with how much more difficulty! If he could avail himself of a horse it would indeed be a mistake to refuse it on the pretext that it is more worthy not to have recourse to any aid. Do not the detractors of symbolism act precisely in this way? And though there is never an absolute impossibility of making the journey on foot, however long and difficult it be, there may none the less exist a truly practical impossibility of reaching the goal in this way. It is thus with rites and symbols: they are not necessary in an absolute sense; but they are, as it were, indispensable by a necessity of convenience or expediency, given the conditions of human nature.

But it is not enough to consider symbolism from the human side as we have been doing up to this point. To be fully understood, it must be looked at as well, if one may say so, from the divine side. Already, once it be accepted that symbolism has its basis in the very nature of beings and things, that it is in perfect conformity with the laws of this nature, and if it be borne in mind that natural laws are basically only an expression and as it were an exteriorisation of the divine Will—does this not authorize us to affirm that symbolism is of ‘non-human’ origin, as the Hindus say: or in other words, that its principle goes further back and higher than humanity? ↓

  1. A parallel text of St Thomas Aquinas can be cited: 'A thing may be necessary to a given end in two ways. First. as that without which it is absolutely impossible to attain the end: thus nourishment is necessary in order to conserve life. In another way, as that by which one better and more conviently attains this end: thus the horse is necessary for travel’ (Summa Theologica 111. q 1.0 2). This caused the Rev Antsan to write: ‘_Sicut equus necessarius est ad iter, say the Vedas and the Summa Theologica_’ (Regnabit, November 1925)

It is not without reason that, in reference to symbolism, the first words of St John’s Gospel have been quoted. ‘In the beginning was the Word’. The Word, the Logos, is at once Thought and Word; in Himself, He is the Divine Intellect, which is the ‘place of possibilities’; in relation to us, He is manifested or expressed by Creation, in which are realised in actual existence certain of those possibilities which, as essences, are contained in Him from all eternity. Creation is the work of the Word: it is also, and by this very fact, His manifestation, his outward affirmation: and this is why the world is like a divine language for those who know how to understand it: Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei (The heavens declare the glory of God, Ps. xix: 2).

The philosopher Berkeley was not wrong, therefore, when he said that the world Is ‘the language that the infinite Spirit speaks to finite spirits’; but he was wrong to believe that this language is only a collection of arbitrary signs, for in reality there is nothing arbitrary even in human language, every signification at the origin necessarily having its basis in some natural conformity or harmony between the sign and the signified. It is because Adam had received from God the knowledge of the nature of all living beings that he was able to give them their names (Genesis II: 19, 20); and all the ancient traditions are in agreement that the true name of a being is one with its nature or its very essence.

If the Word is Thought inwardly and Word outwardly, and if the world is the result of the Divine Word offered at the beginning of time, then nature in its entirety can be taken as a symbol of supernatural reality. Everything that exists, whatever its mode, having its principle in the Divine Intellect, translates or represents this principle in its own way and according to its own order of existence; and thus, from one order to another, all things are linked and correspond with each other so that they cooperate towards the universal and total harmony, which is like a reflection of the divine Unity itself.

This correspondence is the veritable basis of symbolism and this is why the laws of a lower domain can always be taken to symbolise realities of a higher order, where they have the profound reason for their existence, the cause which is both their principle and their end. Let us call attention to the error of the modern ‘naturalistic’ interpretations of ancient traditional doctrines, interpretations which purely and simply reverse the hierarchy of relationships between the different orders of reality. For example, symbols or myths have never had the function of representing the movement of the stars. The truth, rather, is that one often finds therein figures that are inspired by these movements and destined to express analogically something altogether different, because the laws of the movements of the heavens express physically the metaphysical principles on which they depend. The lower can symbolise the higher, but the inverse is impossible. Moreover, if the symbol was not itself nearer the sensible order than what it represents, how could it fulfil the function for which it is destined? In nature the sensible can symbolise, the suprasensible; the natural order in its entirety can in its turn be a symbol of the divine order.

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