Knowledge of the Symbol by Pietro Negri

Part 3

For those reasons, verbal expression, even in its figurative forms, cannot compete with the vital, synthetic nature of symbols. The symbol transcends words, and even when we consider it merely as a means to express and communicate facts and doctrines, it still has one more advantage over language; words vary in time and space and they are liable to become worn out and undergo variations both in form and meaning and cannot achieve the stability and universality of symbols.

Nevertheless, word and symbol share a fundamental trait, namely the metaphorical nature that ties their concrete value to their abstract meaning. Both presuppose the acknowledgement of a universal unity, correspondence, and analogy; thus they implicitly admit the human “similitude.” I said “similitude” and not identity or equality; I admit as a postulate that beings, and especially human beings, are similar among themselves from both the inner and outer point of view, and that the senses and inner organs of different people resemble and are equivalent to each other, just as the physical senses and organs are. Having acknowledged this, our inner experience transcends our individuality, and it can be expressed in words and symbols that can be understood by those who have an analogous experience. Moreover, our inner experience can contribute to induce it in those who have not yet experienced it. This is what happens in ordinary language in regard to common human experiences; when we talk about light, sound, color, we presuppose not only that the sound of our words is perceived by those who listen to us (just as we are able to perceive the sounds that meet our ear.), but also that our experience, expressed through our words, is understood by those who hear it, thanks to the comparison with a similar experience, known by and shared by those who are listening.

Universal analogy is at the basis of symbolism and also at the basis of metaphorical language; therefore it is likely that symbolism conforms to determinate norms, just as the shift from the concrete to the abstract sense obeys the rules of semantics. The “Emerald Tablet,” attributed by the Hermetic tradition to Hermes Trismegistus1 begins with the solemn affirmation of this connection and universal analogy: “Verum sine mendacio, certum et verisimum: quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.” (True, without falsehood, certain and most true: what is below is like that which is above; and what is above is like that which is below, for the accomplishment of the miracle of the one thing.)

There is an analogy between the physical and the metaphysical, between exteriority and interiority, and between man and cosmos. Because of this, man is potentially God, and microcosm is potentially a macrocosm. God, the Bible says, created man in his own image and likeness. The analogical relationship that connects one thing to another makes from each thing the natural symbol of things corresponding to it; hence the concept and the use made in magic of the “signaturae rerum” (signature of things). The similarity between the thing and its symbol, between the object and its image, may be direct or inverse. In the first case the relationship is similar to that existing between a note and its octaves; one ascends from the symbol to what is signified through an anagogical transposition. In the second case, the relationship is similar to that existing between an object and its reflected image; one ascends from the symbol to what is being represented through reflection and inversion. It is necessary to take this factor into account when interpreting symbols. The two similitudes, moreover, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Thus the solar light, refracting and reflecting itself in droplets of water, gives rise to the phenomenon of two concentric rainbows, in which the colors of the spectrum appear to be arranged in an inverted manner. Descartes’s theory explains the formation of the inner rainbow as the simple reflection of the ray of light, and that of the concentric external rainbow as a double reflection. Analogously, a double inversion or one repeated an equal number of times brings back the second type of symbols to the type of mere transposition. Conversely, one might think that in the symbols in which the correspondence occurs through transposition, the inversion of the symbol is not perceived simply because it is repeated an even number of times. The meteorological phenomenon of the rainbow, due to the dispersion of the “solar” ray into the “waters,” thus has the value of a natural symbol of the process of universal analogy itself. Just as in pagan mythology Iris was the messenger of the gods, the special envoy of Jupiter and Juno, because the rainbow was the symbol of the union between heaven and earth, likewise the similitude between the procedure of the analogical inversion and the procedure of inversion in the optical reflection indicates in the analogy the connection uniting heaven and earth, spirit and matter, interiority and exteriority, the divine and the human.

  1. The text of the “Emerald Tablet” was presented first by Jabit ibn Fayyân (Geber), who claimed to have received it from the Pythagorean Apollonius of Tyana. (See E.J. Holmyard, “Chemistry in Islam,” Scientia, I/11 [1926]). According to Hermetic tradition, quoted by Albertus Magnus (De alchemia), the Tabûla Zaradi was found by Alexander the Great in the sepulcher of Hermes. According to this tradition, after the “Flood” Hermes found the tablets that the ancient wise men and Enoch had chiseled prior to and in view of the deluge, in order to perpetuate the tradition. The Masonic tradition attributes the discovery of these tablets to Hermes and Pythagoras. []
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  • Cattle die, and kinsmen die, And so one dies oneself; One thing I know that never dies: The fame of a dead man’s deeds.

    - Pre-Christian Norse poem