Knowledge of the Symbol by Pietro Negri

Part 2

Due to the very character of its composition, the symbol is different from and superior to the emblem, the insignia, the parable, the metaphor, and the allegory.

Emblem (from εν-βαλλω [en-ballo; “to throw in”]) and insignia have a representative rather than a noetic and spiritual character; the parable, the metaphor, and the allegory only partially possess the character of symbol. In the allegory something different is said (αλλο-αγορευω [allo-agoreyo; “to speak other”] rather than what is really meant. The literal sense is the “beautiful lie,” and the true sense is another, possibly in contrast with the literal meaning. In the symbol there is no contrast or true difference between what appears at first site and what is meant. Between the symbol and its meanings there is ususallly a relation of harmony, analogy and correspondence. It is not a matter, as in the case of the allegory, of perceiving the true meaning without being misled by the apparent and irrelevant meaning, but rather (as far as mere comprehension is concerned) to go back from the evident meaning to the hidden ones, in order to understand the full meaning of the symbol, thus fulfilling (instead of overcoming) the initial meaning. Moreover, and properly so, the allegory is always verbal; this limitation does not apply to symbols, since there are many types besides the verbal ones.

The parable too does not have the value of symbol. This word [from παραβολη (para-bole) and παρα-βαλλω (para-ballo), “to put things next to each another”) is a mere comparison or similitude. Parables cannot lead beyond the term of comparison. Their successful employment by Menenius Agrippa and by Jesus shows that they are useful for plebians and for the profane masses. As far as the metaphor and the tropos (metaphorical impression) are concerned, which are terms properly employed in rhetoric, we should note that they too refer to verbal expressions. They suggest that it is usually necessary to translate from concrete into abstract terms the meanings of words or phrases used in a metaphorical way. Metaphor (Latin trans-latum, “the carried over”) means “to carry away” [μετα-φερω (meta-ferò); Latin trans-fero] or “to transfer elsewhere.”

Thus the allegory, the parable, and the metaphor are not, properly speaking, symbols: they are figures of speech that can deal with symbols, as they often do; in this case the characters of an argument, or of the symbol, are found, at least partially, evein in the verbal expression used. In this case, on the basis of a symbol or a body of symbols, or special symbolism, one can construct an entire allegorical language; thus, sometimes even a jargon or a secret and conventional set of sentences are constructed.

I have mentioned that symbols come in a great variety of species. In practice, anything can constitute the basis of a symbol; however, there are obviously criteria for their being chosen or employed. Thus we have numerical symbolism, in which whole numbers (an abstraction per se) constitute symbols while their powers (Greek δυναμειζ), their residues, or roots (πυθμην) their simple relationships and properties constitute symbolically their anagogical virtues. This symbolism was especially employed by the Pythagoreans, then the Kabbalists and Freemasons. We have the symbolism of the letters of the alphabet, which is obviously connected to the numerical symbolism that is at the basis of the Kabbalistic tradition. We can connect the geometrical symbolism of the Platonists and neo-Platonists to these symbols, and especially to the first one. Geometrical and numerical symbolism is connected to the symbolism of those sciences and sacred arts in which there are relationships, proportions, rhythm, and harmony, such as architecture, chants, music, dance, poetry, and painting (together with the symbolism of colors, etc.). Heraldry and emblematics are the emanations, derivations, and applications of these symbols in the social and political domain. From physical phenomena come polar, solar, and meteorological symbolism, as well as the Hermetic symbolism of transformation. Biological phenomena provide the symbolism of fermentation, putrefaction, and germination of the vegetal seed, as well as sexual symbolism, the symbolism of metamorphosis and resurrection, and the symbolism of spiritual foods and beverages (e.g., the Hindu soma; the Mazdean haoma; the Hindu amrita; the Greek nectar and ambrosia; the ancient Latin anna peremna; the Judeo-Christian “bread” and “wine”). From the various forms of human activity come the regal symbolism (Philalethes’ royal palace; the royal or regal neo-Platonic and Masonic art; via regia; aqua regia; the Hermeticists’ royal wedding, the symbolism of war, especially the “holy war” (Bhagavad Gita); the symbolism of pastures found in both Hermes Trismegistus’s Pymander and in the Gospels; the symbolism of cultivation of the “land” or Georgic symbolism; the symbolism of “navigation” (Homer, Virgil, Dante); the symbolism of the foundation of temples and cities and, in general, of “edification” (hence the title of “Pontifex” [builder of bridges] attributed to the Roman High Priest) and of “construction,” which is the foundation of traditional Masonic symbolism, naturally connected with architectural symbolism (hence the “Great Architect of the Universe”); the symbolism of custody and defense of sacred objects, temples and lands (Knights of the Grail and Knights Templar). Finally, some historical and legendary events, at both an individual and a collective level, may become the basis of and serve as symbolism (e.g. The Trojan War; Hercules’ labors; the Argonaut’s expedition; the life of Jesus). Myths [μυθοζ (mythos – “what is spoken”; Latin tra-ditio = tradition, custom)] and fable (fabulare, to speak) are just stories; mythology is the story of gods and heroes. Myths are not symbols, but can have a symbolic character and become the basis of a certain symbolism. Thus, pagan mythology has supplied several symbols to Hermeticists, such as Michael Maier and Pernety. What I have presented here is a summary and incomplete list, though it should suffice to give the reader an idea of the breadth and variety of symbolism.

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