Knowledge of the Symbol by Pietro Negri

Part 4

The analogical character intrinsic in the symbol confers on it an ambiguity and an indetermination of meaning, which on the one hand makes it rich and fertile vis-à-vis the precision and the determination of the word, while on the other hand makes its penetration and use less simple and easy. Even in words, the awareness of the etymological meaning and ties with related word-forms allows one to perceive their hidden meaning, and thus opens the way to greater knowledge. But in the case of symbols, the analogous process presents a very different breadth and depth. The understanding of a meaning is the step towards the conquest of further meanings in collateral and higher domains. In this case, one is not forced to abandon the constant overcoming of the mystery of the ultimate roots of language, which is unavoidably present at the basis of every etymological analysis.

By virtue of constant meditation, the symbol ends up being imprinted on the mind, and with its constant presence it is always ready to inspire it, to suggest to it the analogical relationships that it has with what it, from time to time, the object of thought. Independent of references to various ideas, the symbol, on the basis of the analogical relationships contained in it and also due to its intrinsic syncretism, supplies the mind with elements to work on, and fertilizes it, so to speak, by bestowing a creative power upon it. In this sense, symbols constitute modes of motion and action, factors of endogenesis, that push, guide, and lead to conditions of consciousness not yet experienced, and thus to an effective, direct, significant knowledge. From the hidden meaning found in the signs it is possible in this way to ascend to conscious possession; thus what one gains through signs is also a practical teaching.1

This fecundating, magical action of the symbol over the mind corresponds perfectly to the similar action of symbols in politics and religion, as everybody can ascertain. Think of the waves of enthusiasm, the heroic determination that can be induced in individuals or in the masses through a hymn, a flag, a national or political symbol; think of the enthusiasm and fanaticism that a religious symbol can provoke, and you will understand how in Magic, too, the symbol can have a similar energizing virtue, a similar stimulating power, and the virtue of spiritual elevation. There is, however, an essential difference. In politics and religion the symbol appeals to love of country, to partisan spirit, to religious faith and prejudice, namely only to sentiment that the symbol stirs and manifests. But in esotericism, the symbol never appeals to sentiment, but rather to the mind and spirit’s higher faculties of understanding and creativity. Sentiment, beliefs, theories, and any idea of adaptation or subordination to the masses are just human elements; it is a mistake to rely on them or to compromise with them when trying to rise above the mortal level and to ascend from the human to the divine. Magic, and with it all initiatic traditions, is perfectly coherent when it replaces the dogmatism of religious and philosophical faiths, or the mere representative verbalism of some sciences, with the symbolic teaching, or with the spiritual process that, with the help of symbols, makes the inner experiences and conditions understandable, and thereby enables the direct perception and comprehension of transcendence.

  1. The author makes an untranslatable play on words here in the original. The Italian word for teachings is insegnamento, which also literally can be read as in-segna-mento, “in-sign-ment.” He then remarks, “It is very interesting, both historically and philogically, to note how language uses a word with such a meaning to characterize teaching.” [Original editor’s note] []
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  • Conquer anger by love. Conquer evil by good. Conquer the mean by generosity. Conquer the liar by truth… Never in the world is hatred conquered by hatred: hatred is conquered by love.


    - Dhammapada 223, 5