The Theosophical Forum – March 1941

THE LANGUAGE OF SYMBOLS — H. T. Edge

Poets and prophets, heathen and Christian, alike express themselves symbolically, and, if we believe that this language prevailed in the early ages of the world, before the external and intellectual life had predominated over the instinctive and emotional, we must conclude it to be the natural language of man, who must therefore have been gifted with a conformable faculty of comprehending these hieroglyphics; and hence it arose that the interpreting of dreams became a legitimate art. Long after these instinctive faculties were lost, or rather obscured, by the turmoil and distractions of sensuous life, the memories and traditions of them remained, and hence the superstructure of jugglery and imposture that ensued, of which the gipsies form a signal example, in whom however there can be no doubt that some occasional gleams of this original endowment may still be found, as is the case, though more rarely, in individuals of all races and conditions. The whole of nature is one large book of symbols, which, because we have lost the key to it, we cannot decipher. — Catherine Crowe: The Night-Side of Nature

We recognise here an intuition of that universal mystery- language spoken of in The Secret Doctrine. The author is writing of symbolic dreams, of which she narrates many instances. She points out that the interpretation of the symbols is the same with all peoples, as, for instance, deep water means trouble, and pearls mean tears; and comments on the quickness and facility of this language as compared with the labored process of verbal speech. It is to be observed that this symbol language, as here conceived, is not of the nature of an arbitrary code, agreed upon by persons desirous of conveying information to those possessing the key, while withholding it from those who do not. It is a natural language, based on existing facts. In this language a single symbol, such as a tree for instance, conveys a sort of compound or general idea, a root-idea underlying a variety of particular manifestations. The intuitive faculty would grasp the whole of the meaning at once, as a thought without words; whereas the ordinary mind has to decipher the various meanings laboriously one by one, and any Teacher trying to explain the matter may be thought guilty of contradicting himself by saying one thing at one time and another at another. Or take the geometrical symbols, triangle, circle, cross, etc. Is it not possible that, to the unclouded inner vision, no interpretation whatever would be needed, because the mere symbol would convey the entire meaning in a flash?

In the language which we customarily use, words stand either for concrete objects or for abstract notions. These abstractions are based on our experience in the physical world of consciousness. But what about other worlds and their conformable planes of consciousness? Is it to be expected that we should find there the same objects and the same abstract ideas as here? If so, it would be the same world and not a different world. Then why may there not be a world where the language is in wordless pictures, and the mind exercises a corresponding faculty of seizing the import of these pictures in a flash? The writer quoted above surmises that the highly intelligent in the ancient world could not have been satisfied for so long with a mythology which to us seems idle stories, if this mythology had been really such and nothing more. And it may be that they never troubled to "interpret" what to them seemed in no need of interpretation.

We think here of the true nature of art and poetry, of the ability of some minds to appreciate them, while other minds do not; and of attempts by these latter minds to explain and analyse the poetry and the art and reduce it to some system. We think of the minds of little children and of primitive peoples; and we begin to realize how the intellect (which of course has its own proper uses) clouds over these natural primitive faculties, these intuitions, these direct perceptions. All this links up with the doctrine of universal correspondences (also treated of in the book just quoted), and of how all things are interrelated one with another. Upon the knowledge of this natural fact rest such things as sympathetic cures, amulets, sympathies and antipathies, totems, etc. There is a vast fund of knowledge about Nature which we do not possess, or perhaps have forgotten; and our attempts to explain these mysteries in such a way as to make them fit in with our own systematized acquaintance with physical Nature seem rather crude.

It is suggested in the quotation at the beginning of this article that our loss of knowledge has been due to a lack of simplicity, and that our inherent faculties have been obscured by our physical senses and our reasoning mind. And in this respect children, animals, and primitive peoples may be our superiors. It is of course true that we must become as little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and that the pupil must regain the child-state which he has lost. Yet this return to simplicity does not imply retrogression; it is futile to attempt to set back the hand of the clock. Our philosophy shows us that evolution winds along a spiral path, ever bringing us back to a phase similar to one which we have left behind, yet always one rung higher. The concentration of attention on physical matters, and the development of intellect are necessary stages in evolution; but we have to develop our intellect, not allow it to develop us.

Symbols then are not arbitrary chosen signs, but pictorial representations of compound ideas, which ideas cannot be grasped as wholes by the reasoning mind, but only in successive aspects; while to grasp the entire meaning in one flash requires the use of a higher faculty, which we may call intuition — one of the things we are called on to develop.


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE