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True & False Paths to Happiness - XVII

The Link between Reality & the Symbol

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The symbol is quite used in conventions today. For example, for traffic warnings it was agreed that a certain symbol would indicate what to do or not do.


Conventional symbols that guide us
on the streets & highways

The adopted figure can imply what is meant: i.e., the figure of a man crossing a street with an "X" on him tells us "Don't cross!" It can also be a purely arbitrary figure, like a yellow triangle to mean this or that thing.

Then, there are non conventional symbols that speak for themselves. The dog is a symbol of fidelity; the fox, of cleverness; the lamb, of meekness; the dove, of innocence; the serpent, of cunning, etc. They are irrational animals that are interpreted as a sign of an abstract idea, due to analogies their behavior has with this or that virtue or vice.

The word symbol has its noblest meaning when a reality of a lower nature reminds us, by analogy or similarity – of a being of a higher nature. For example, thunder is a phenomenon of a purely material nature that can resemble the roar of a lion. A mother can tell her child, who has never heard a lion roar: "Do you hear this thunder? The lion's roar is like that!"

king lion

A lion can recall courage or a person, i.e., a King

In turn, the lion can recall the warrior, the perfect King or the perfect Pontiff, and so on. The perfect Pontiff or King, in turn, recalls the strength and omnipotence of God. And so the analogies accumulate.

It is said that purity is white, that justice is straight, and colors, sounds, shapes and smells that speak to the senses represent various virtues. Doing this helps us to understand what virtue is and to love it.

Even from the smoke of a cigarette you can arrive at God. Let us imagine a man smoking, his pipe unleashing a spiral of smoke. At times the spiral develops along a line that recalls certain attitudes of the human spirit. And these attitudes, in turn, remind us of God. In that sense, the simple smoke from a pipe or a cigarette can remind one of something of God, it can symbolize a perfection of God.

dutchman smoking

Even smoke spiraling from a pipe
can have a symbolic value

The departure point is here a being that has a sensitive appearance: smoke. Sensitive appearances, when well studied, all provide some analogy with the world of the spirit – with some state of mind of man, with something of human intelligence – with something, therefore, that touches on the soul of man. As such, this analogy indirectly leads the soul to God.

We are in the full terrain of symbolism, which involves a delicate problem, since it is necessary to avoid falling into Pantheism, Esoterism and other deviations of this genre. On the other hand, true symbolism can constitute an especially acute form of knowledge.

The material universe is an immense symbolic edifice, in which the highest part is man. The whole universe, in one way or another, is a symbol of God. We should be able to see in each thing a symbol of something more elevated.

The bridge between the visible and the invisible is the symbol. Men would be much more given to reflection if they recognized the symbolic value of things.

The concrete should lead to the spiritual

What exactly is a symbol?

Tizona el cid

Tizona, the sword of El Cid, recalls his daring & courage; below, Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagnee

joyeuse charmlemagne

A sword, for example, is a symbol of the combative spirit. This is commonly acknowledged in heraldry and literature.

Is there any resemblance between the sword and the combative spirit? Given that the latter is a state of mind and the sword is a material thing, how can there be a similarity? What does this similarity consist of?

Here we put our finger on the elementary sense of the word symbol, from which we can strive to climb to higher steps.

A similarity exists and is neither insignificant nor established only by chance because, for example, for long eras of history, the sword was considered the weapon par excellence. But there is something else. It is that the combative spirit is composed of rectitude, inflexibility, the capacity to touch and wound in polemical matters, so that one who has the combative spirit will take actions that the sword symbolizes perfectly.

So then, it must be admitted that there are similarities between certain material objects and certain states of spirit of man, between things that he thinks and concrete things.

A symbol exists when there is a resemblance between a specific concrete object and something abstract or spiritual. This is a good characterization of a symbol; it is part of its definition.

Let us take, for example, this bird feather. It is an object that, by a set of circumstances analogous to that of the sword, symbolizes the writer. For many centuries, the feather pen served as a writing tool for man.

shakespeare writing

The quill pen reflects something
of the ruminating writer

Between the intellectual act of composing and the manual act of writing there is a certain similarity, a certain affinity. The bird feather – with its central calamus that runs in a straight line that makes up part of the feather itself – has a flexibility, an ease to be steered, which recalls the dexterity with which the writer develops his thought.

The very fact that the feather pen's handle is long reminds us of the length of thought – of a thinking full of constructions, of arrières pensées (second meanings) – one can say that between the profession of writer and the feather there is something more than just a historical coincidence that it served for so long a time as a working tool for the writer.

It is true that its use for the work of writing prepares an association of images that accentuates and facilitates the perception of this similarity. But the similarity does not depend only on its use as an instrument; it is, in its own way, a true similarity between what the feather pen is and the use for which it serves.

This is how the symbol establishes a correlation of similarity between a concrete object and something spiritual.

medieval scribes quikll pens

Medieval scribes with quill pens


Posted SOctober 7, 2020