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True & False Paths to Happiness - XIX

The Symbolic Character of All Aspects of Reality

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The principal raison d'être of each thing is not its functional aspect, but its symbolic meaning. (1)

The symbolic meaning of something is the most powerful aspect for the formation of souls: Through symbology we exercise ourselves in the practice of the love of God.

belgian family

The principal role of parents is to represent God to the children; above, a well-constituted Belgian family

The principal reason of being for parental authority, for example, is not to feed and not even to educate the child, but rather to represent God to the child: God as generating, nurturing and forming.

This should be the key note in the parent-child relationship, because the symbolic function is always the highest in the order of ends.

Man needs the practical for the body, but he needs the beautiful for the soul. The soul does not eat bread; the soul does not breathe oxygen; yet the principal element of man is the soul.

Man is not, as they say, just a conjunct of soul and body, as if the two were elements of equal size, juxtaposed in the constitution of an individual. He is fundamentally a soul, which needs the body, but the body exists to serve the soul. And the soul of man postulates truth and beauty, because it was created in the image and likeness of God, and God is infinite Truth and infinite Beauty.

Openness to symbols makes human convivium admirable

St Denis windows

The nuanced play of light in St. Denis Cathedral in Paris invites symbolic reflection

Seeing many things symbolically not only broadens the horizons in a fantastic way, and also unites souls in a marvelous way. It is a type of commercium (2) of soul, of union of soul. We have no idea how beautiful and admirable human interaction would be if everyone understood the symbols as they should be understood.

Light illuminates those who love it, in a different sense than just the light falling on my hand and illuminating it. My soul, loving the light, acquires something of the luminous. There is an assimilation, through which some attributes of light come to live in me, and in some way allows me to participate in the light.

What is this way? The subject and the object become harmonious. The soul becomes harmonious with the light.

What is the nature of this harmony? To all appearances it is accidental; but in fact nothing touches the accident that does not involve the substance.

The need to understand the abstract & symbolic side of reality

An example of the mutual enrichment between the principle and the symbol is the Catholic Liturgy. In it, the truths of the Catolic Faith are expressed in the enormous variety of gestures and objects of its external worship. This Liturgy is full of symbols, precisely to assist man in prayer. By means of concrete images, it gives life to a multitude of abstract concepts – the truths of the Faith – that the faithful sets in motion when he prays.

Just as the Church did not elaborate her piety for pure spirits, but for men, there must be in society a whole culture focused on metaphysics, not on a dry, Cartesian metaphysics, but on a living metaphysics, steeped in symbols.


A very polite act can give a fuller notion of what civility is than mere words

For what intelligence seeks is to have a knowledge of things, both abstract and symbolic. And a man only has the complete idea of a certain material or spiritual reality when he becomes aware of all that which reality can present in what is abstract and symbolic.

For example, I can have a theoretical sense of what politeness is. But if I see a man consistently taking a very polite position toward others, I can say, "Ah! This is politeness!"

Having seen politeness in action – as being practiced by someone – it acquires in my eyes a wealth of understanding that it did not have in the pure abstract concept.

Sensitivity to symbols, a condition for spiritual progress

Every man, just as he has sight, hearing and the other senses, in a higher order is sensitive to symbols.

This sensitivity can be cultivated or crushed. Today's culture crushes sensitivity to symbols. It even replaces authentic symbols with symbols that are absolutely nothing or are bad and demonic symbols.

In persons in whom the propensity to consider true symbols has not been extinguished, there are times when they discern the symbol in all its beauty and expression. And there are moments when the symbol is dull and indeterminate because the conditions surrounding it make it appear so.

Therefore, there is a line of progress in the spiritual life that consists of increasing one's sensitivity to symbols. Thus it happens that, from time to time – whether in the supernatural or the natural order – the symbol speaks to us so loudly and strongly that it remains for a lifetime, and is never entirely extinguished again.


The lighthouse is a symbol of guidance in life,
like Our Lady is for our souls



Blason de Charlemagne
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  1. St. Bonaventure instructs us that symbolic theology is one of the ways to reach the knowledge of the truth. In The Journey of the Mind into God, he says: "God has thoroughly taught us the knowledge of the truth according to a threefold manner of theology: that is, the symbolic, the proper and the mystical. Though the symbol, we right use of sensible things; through the proper, we rightly use the intelligible; through the mystical we are taken to the higher raptures of the spirit." (No. 7, p. 5)
  2. In Latin, commercium has the meaning of the relationships between beings. For example, the commercium among angels.
Posted October 26, 2020