The Real Is Returning: Why Is Symbolism So Popular Today?

Victor BrunoSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023
Credit to Ana Julia Silveira, author of this reiterpretation of the Manus Dei artwork.
Look and make it according to the pattern, that was shewn thee in the mount. —Exodus 25:40

“My goodness, what a hell of a labyrinth this is,” complained my friend behind the wheel.

We’d been driving for some thirty or forty minutes by then, after a party they threw on the opposite side of the city from where we were now. There were three of us in the car: my friend, an acquaintance of ours, and myself. For some reason, we had been charged with the task of driving this acquaintance back to her place. Quite a long ride. She lived at an apartment complex beyond one of the last neighborhoods of the city.

The party was near downtown, and in the ride we saw darting past the windows the commercial center, the richer neighborhoods, the poor neighborhoods, the poorer neighborhoods, and now we were in this thick painting of black. Utter darkness. There was no street lights. Besides the moonglow, the only source of light were the headlights of my friend’s car.

Then we made a right and suddenly our acquintance’s apartment complex shone in a sodium-powered yellowish glow, announcing the end of the first part of our trek. She said thanks, hopped out of the car, went into the complex, and we made an U-turn, heading back to the city. After another thirty minutes, the electric mist of modern civilization greeted us again.

Labyrinth. Darkness. Light. The quest to find a safe harbor. I’m sure that the meaning of these images and terms, or even of simple actions like driving someone home are familiar to the readers of The Symbolic World, so this essay doesn’t aim to address what they mean, nor do I want to say that I was in a microcosmic, if banal, archetypal moment. There is no question that, however banal this story is, it is also swarming with symbolic images: the labyrinthine way through darkness; the very uncertain brute gloom about our car; the headlights on the road providing a minimal safety to go on (the Pillar of Fire by night); the glowing apartment complex as the shining safe port (the Island of the Blessed); our city glowing on the horizon, welcoming my friend and me back. No one who frequently visits this website will say I am reading things into my situation. The meaning of these images and symbols is there: all we have to do is to trace it back to the archetypal and ultimate ideas that substantiate their existence in the material world.

I am writing this essay, though, not to ventilate my amazement about the existence of symbolism. What I want to express is how amazed I am by how many people are amazed by its existence today. For instance: some days later, my friend and I were discussing just that first sentence of this essay, “What a hell of a labyrinth this is.” How naturally that phrase occurred to my friend.

“It is funny how these things appear in our speech,” he said. How naturally the idea of a serpentine path being a labyrinth occurs to us. Up to a point, it might be obvious: labyrinths are hard to travel through, and uncertain paths are just as hard, so it is a question of adding one plus one. But how many times has any of us actually walked into a labyrinth? Labyrinths do not occur in nature. God did not make a maze with twisting and turning walls either in forests or in the desert. We intuitively know that, and just as intuitively use this word in that sense. We intuitively use color symbolism to convey ideas about positive or negative things (“He’s walking a dark path”; “She’s so green about these things”).

What strikes me is why so many people are questioning why they do that today.

The Heralds of Good Old Things

There’s clearly a need for meaning right now, or so the data say. Consider that Dr. Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life (2018) has sold over five million copies, as the author’s website informs us, and his new book, Beyond Order (2021) ranks fifth in Popular Applied Psychology on Amazon’s Best Sellers Rank. Or that Matthieu Pageau’s self-published work The Language of Creation (2018), in its paperback version, is the nineteenth most sold book in the surprisingly competitive category of Old Testament Commentaries, the top positions being occupied by different printings of the Bible. Consider also that if Jonathan Pageau’s YouTube channel were a book and his 137,000 subscribers were buyers, he’d have a best seller under his belt—more than most published researchers could claim, since it’s well known that most academic publications are read by three people at most: the author, his editor, and his peer-reviewer.

Also, analyze this: most of the great authors that dealt with symbolism in one form or another in the last century are still in print, from Traditionalists like Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and René Guénon and historians like Mircea Eliade and Jean Borella, to literary critics such as Northrop Frye and thinkers like Károly Kerényi and Dr. Jung himself. Besides, even those authors whose main books aren’t getting the ink of the printer right now, such as Charbonneau-Lassay and his Bestiary of Christ, last published in English in 1992, have a new life in PDFs that shoot across the Internet like stars against the night sky (to say nothing of authors of local fame, like Raffaelle Pettazzoni in Italy and Câmara Cascudo in Brazil).

If all of these intellectuals are in demand, then it seems that people are willing to listen to them. But why? What is it that draws more and more people to the intricate and not always easily understandable world of symbolism, a world where very often black is white and white is black? Why do 4.3 million people wait for notifications of new videos from Jordan Peterson?

From the standpoint of modernity, this is incomprehensible. Symbolic thought doesn’t square with the modern mentality, which is said to be grounded in empiricism. How can one “prove” symbolism? How can one replicate the symbolic experience materially?

Wisdom in the Sky, Wisdom in Oneself

For instance, consider astrological symbolism. Western astrology shot off from Ptolemaic astronomy. Today we know that the Earth isn’t at the center of the universe and there are way more than seven planets; we also know that the Sun isn’t one of them and that their orbits don’t form a perfect circle. So what would be the use of astrology, then? It should be crystal clear that astrology is nothing more than a filler of newspaper print space—and now, with the demise of printed newspapers, there’s certainly no use for it.

Yet, Internet forums and chat groups are swarming with people, especially young people, who are interested in learning traditional astrology. Moreover, John Frawley is a household name and his book The Real Astrology is a hit; Ben Dykes got his due reward for the inglorious task of translating and annotating Christian and Islamic medieval astrological treatises; and four centuries after his burial, William Lilly constantly gets new editions, translations, and revisions of his work.

This should make no sense. Why would people spend an incredible amount of time learning a craft that is wrong even in the way it sets out the position of the planets? The real, empirical, and observational corporeal space flatly contradicts the very foundations of astrology, so what is its use?

What these people are after is wisdom. The wisdom of ancient cosmology, as Wolfgang Smith puts it. It might be that ancient or Ptolemaic cosmology is incoherent when viewed by the logic of modern science—but modern cosmology is also incoherent by its own logic, as the former MIT mathematics professor Wolfgang Smith explained. Copernicus created the modern cosmological system, according to Smith, under the false impression that it was entirely observable. Whereas not even the order of the planets in Ptolemaic cosmology was deductible from the visible Universe. “If the planets (including the Earth) revolve in circular orbits around the Sun,” says Smith, “it is possible in fact to calculate the ratios of the planetary radii in terms of the angular distances from the Sun to the planets as measured from the Earth.”1 However, soon it became clear that the observational data Copernicus had wasn’t trustworthy: if Earth itself gravitates around the Sun, then the time a different planet takes to make a translation is also different from the time it seems to take when we observe it from Earth. Soon enough, Copernicus had to resort to an old, geocentric astrological escape: epicycles, the same resource Ptolemy used to perfect the orbits in geocentrism. Later, Tycho Brahe added his own epicycles, and Galileo made yet more changes. Therefore, when in use, modern cosmology performatively contradicts itself, with its presupposition of entire observability.

Modern science, with all its complex calculations, its power of sending satellites to the upper vaults of the Universe, of giving us high-speed Internet and augmented or virtual “realities,” of letting us cross America in three or four hours, has not given us wisdom. It has not satisfied man’s natural need for the transcendent, which, after the Revelation, coincides with the wisdom of God.

Ay, there’s the rub.

From the point of view of traditional wisdom, it isn’t relevant if symbolism is not “provable” in the terms of modern thought, or if it seems arbitrary or “man-made” (as in: “Religion is something created by men!”). We can’t say that Saturn is the planet of sorrow any more than we can say that black symbolizes it, but we can say that there is an intuitive connection between saturnine character and gloominess in our perception. By the way, gloom is a word that originally meant “silent,” “taciturn,”2 two characteristics that Lilly attributes to Saturn; only later it came to describe dark or overcast environments. So melancholy comes in black. Is it then arbitrary that the color of the Requiem Mass is black? or that overcast days are mournful days? or that which is baser, toxic, unwelcoming, putrid, and deathly is associated with darker colors?

The issue is that modern science can make Alexa turn the light on if I tell it to, but it can’t explain whence comes that intuition that associates Saturn, dark colors, and sad and heavy stuff. The anxiety to know, though, how these three things fit together remains there; and if one can’t shake off this anxiety, how can the study of symbolism, how can the discovery that there are ancient sciences (which means ancient forms of wisdom) not be attractive? Once I know that “intellectual intuition is the most immediate of all wisdom, and is its most elevated form,”3 and if there are all these sciences that work on the strength of my natural association between images, colors, and my perception, how can I not think that there is a piece of universal wisdom in me? How can I not understand what Christ meant when He said the Father had “hid these things from the very learned [sophōn] and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones” (Mt 11:25). And if what one does to the very least of Christ’s brethren was done unto Him (Mt 25:40), then I who am very little have in me a piece of Christ’s true wisdom. My perception, murky and unfocused, seems to detect something that appears to belong to the order of reality.

This is better than Alexa.

The Wisdom of the Traditional Forms

Knowing that my intuitive perceptions aren’t idiosyncratic, but are backed by a venerable tradition, changes radically how I notice reality. It reassures me that how I intuitively choose to express what I see and think is not meaningless; rather, it is the same language of a very old wisdom.

But why does this unscientific, “unprovable” wisdom shake me so? Or rather, why is it shaking so many people? Why are so many rushing to know what tradition and archetypes tell about reality if they belong to archaic modes of thought? After all, it is clear we are now in the realm of religion and “spirituality.”

I just pointed out that it provides meaning for people; but this pulls in our direction another question: Why is this spiritual mumbo-jumbo meaningful to people?

We’ll find our answer with the help of two philosophers who spoke the same language despite living in two different eras: Eric Voegelin and St. Gregory of Nyssa. These two philosophers pointed out that there is a tension, a stress in the human desire to stay in or to strive for the divine pole or ground of existence, since our fallen nature prevents us from staying in that ground at all times (something Plato also suggests). The human condition is one of restlessness. This is what St. Augustine means when he says that our heart is restless until we rest in the Lord, in the first sentence of his Confessions.

Granted, Voegelin and St. Gregory didn’t literally speak the same language, but notice how they say the same thing. This desire to be close to the divine, illuminated ground that Voegelin called a “tension toward the beyond,” and St. Gregory called epektasis. The expression “tension toward” is weird-sounding in English, because it is a rough translation that describes the same state as epektasis, which is the striving to abide in the divine ground. As Eugene Webb explains, “the beyond,” the “divine” or the “illuminated ground” are all symbols that mean the same thing: God, or the Wise One, in ancient traditional societies.4 So this “tension toward the beyond” is the pulling toward a greater and fuller participation in the wisdom that lies at the center of the transcendent, the very wisdom of God Himself. As Webb also observes, three words form epektasis: epi (toward), ek (out), and tasis (tension).5 This is why I said they speak the same language, the language of wisdom, even though they speak different dialects.

Before the crisis of modernity, man made conscious use of this tension in his development of articulate symbolic systems, all pointing out to the divine or at least to the sacred. Secularization is something alien to traditional symbolic wisdoms. Arts, sciences, rites, social mores and behaviors: all of these things mapped out a symbolic layout of the beyond, or patterns of behavior and thought in order to reach the divine. This is not something that we should take lightly, because it represents almost an essential difference in the constitution of man.

According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, archaic or traditional man is a “metaphysical man.” The presence of the sacred—that is, of what is understood to be eternal—marks his doing, thinking, and speech. An example of this is when Meister Eckhart states that “human nature has nothing to do with time”; a man becomes a man when he acquires the “fullness of time.”6 This dovetails perfectly with Mircea Eliade’s observation that man seeks to escape the “terror of history.”

This is why archaic societies are always religious societies. Archaic man’s quest for eternity happens even in his own house. Writing on the role of the house in traditional societies, Eliade says: “The man of ‘primitive’ and traditional societies conceived his own world—the territory he occupies, his city, his own house—according to an ideal model, particularly that which God used to create the Universe.”7 Accordingly, the central pole of the cabins in Innuit and some Arab societies is the Central Beam of the Universe. In Segovia, Spain, we can still find houses adorned on the outside with stars or fleurs de vie in the esgrafiado technique of stucco artwork.

Everything points to the eternal. Everything is imprinted with the mark of the beyond. Truly “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.”

Then, despite the pejorative connotation the word “archaic” usually carries, it is not a misnomer when applied to traditional societies: archaic comes from arkhē, “principal,” and a religious society is naturally a society that is closer to the first principles, the religious principles. This is to say that their words and expressions are, as Northrop Frye said, words with power, strengthened by meaning. Meaning is what allows us to understand something in its correct nature, to the completion of its nature. Societies where things have a nature and an end (in the sense of telos) are naturally meaningful societies.

Our society has lost its meaning, since things are said to be deprived of nature. In a society where everything is disposable or can be exchanged for something else, how can meaning and value prevail? Life itself is devalued. By extension, our own words became worthless. The power of analogy and metaphor, which are the very basis of language, first became diluted as components of poetry—especially divertissement poetry, poetry for entertainment’s sake—then it became a property of wittiness in speech, and now has dissipated completely in importance. Modernity understands symbolism as an arbitrary connection made by humans between equally tradable signifiers (anything can mean anything). It has lost all of its weight. Modern man reduced his speech to straw. We may repeat the words God said to Moses on the mount, but they are worthless placed next to the algorithms that AI spits out.

Meaning in a World That Fights for Meaninglessness

Nevertheless, we fight for meaning. I reckon that we have come to a place in history where it is clear that having the fuel that will take us to the Empyrean Heaven is more important than letting Elon Musk take us to Mars. I think that this has to do with the sense that we are not alone. Thinking in the manner of someone like Jeremy Bentham or a John Stuart Mill, metaphysics and symbolism may not have any “useful” end, since they play no practical role in the theater of modern society. However, if Voegelin and St. Gregory are correct and the great quest of man, as seen earlier, is to stay in the illuminated divine ground, to know that our actions reflect eternal patterns, if what we do today was done at the dawn of time, if a touch of timelessness tinges our speech and doing, if there’s an escape from the dragging of history to forgetfulness and annihilation, then metaphysics and symbolism are much more important than going to Mars. Discovering what archetypes reveal is more important than thinking about the technological future.

When we see that the simplest motion picture is drenched with archetypal meaning, even if that meaning wasn’t laid there intentionally, we see that our immediate material world has the potential of so many more rich colors than our present of chromium and water-resistant glass present will ever show us. Moreover, it is clear, once we become aware of the reality of symbolism, that the images and archetypes associated in traditional societies with the beyond, with God, won’t ever go away. They always happen.

For instance, an old, forgotten picture like Howard Hawks’s Man’s Favorite Sport? ends with the main couple, that had hitherto constantly bickered with each other, on a marital bed, in the middle of a lake, in the rain! We have here a clear image of the coniunctio oppositorum (the couple on the bed), of the waters of creation (the bed floating on the lake), and of the fertilizing rain. All this in a picture that is a banal sex comedy!

Another example: in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the main character discovers, after taking a dive in the ocean, that the man who purports to be his long-lost brother is lying.  After being bathed in the lustral waters, he can see through appearances and take hold of the truth.

One more example: in Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, Detective Philip Marlowe, after following a heap of false clues, is conked on the head, loses consciousness, and is locked away in a mental hospital. After experiencing a series of hallucinations, he regains his senses, fights for his liberty, and is rebirthed with a definite insight on how to solve the case he’s working on. A death-and-resurrection initiation pattern.

None of these examples are “esoteric” or are the work of “mystical” artists: they are examples taken from pop mass culture. I could extend them indefinitely (as I did elsewhere). Likewise, my friend wasn’t a mystic when he choose to say that we were “in a hell of a labyrinth”; but in saying that, he echoed that our long and worrisome night journey across the city was an ordeal by labyrinth and thus it had value, like it was valuable to medieval Christians to walk on the labyrinths of Gothic cathedrals, reaching Jerusalem, the center of the world, when they completed the test.

Symbolism makes life valuable, and it makes it so because life is, in truth, valuable in itself. If symbolism happens, as Jonathan Pageau is fond of saying, it does so because symbolism irrupts into the web of time, neutralizing it. In the eyes of eternity, there is no history.

Symbolism happens because it belongs to the order of nature. If previously symbolic wisdom seemed arbitrary, like a mirror upon which man projects his own dreams and thoughts, now it no longer reflects us, but reveals itself as a window to the shining green garden of the Real.

* * *

Once I wrote a paper to defend, as if he needed my help, St. Isidore of Seville. Specifically, I posited that his Etymologies still deserved philosophical respect because even if they were mistaken in the eyes of contemporary philology, they are important as a document of metaphysical realistic philosophy, which is a branch of traditional wisdom.8 Alas, it didn’t pan out. One of the reviewers argued that what I was defending as philosophy, as valuable knowledge, was in truth metaphor. It belonged to poetry, not to the science of philosophy.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Needless to say I was angry. I found that stupid. Then it dawned on me that the reviewer was right. The symbols that St. Isidore drew in his quest to make the origins of speech clearer are indeed poetic. But it isn’t the archaic and now obsolete methodology of the great Spanish bishop that is at fault: there is no fault here. It is life that is poetic. Life is poetry. It is poiēsis: a doing in process of completion. Thus our own speech is, at bottom, poetic. It works on similes; on the process of connecting what is visible in the material world with the ultimate Intelligible Source who provides meaning to everything.

If speech and narrative are symbolic, it is because He who made everything infused everything with His meaning. Now we are in need of returning to the traditional wisdom that assents that in all things there is a symbol of He who truly knows the meaning of everything. I think we are making our quest back to that city which is the seat of Real Wisdom, its lights glowing on the horizon, just as my friend and I picked out the lights of our city from afar, after dropping off an inconvenient lady friend at her safe home in the thick darkness of the night.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. Smith, Wolfgang. The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology, at 152-3. Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2004.
  2. Two of the roots of “gloom” are Old Danish glummende (scowling) and Old Swedish glomma or glåmma (to stare fixedly, muttedly).
  3. Guénon, René. La Crise du monde moderne, at 85. Gallimard, 1946.
  4. Webb, Eugene. Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, at 63. University of Washington Press, 2014.
  5. Ibid. at 67, note 19.
  6. Meister Eckhart. “Sermon Ninety-Two” in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, tr. Maurice O’C. Walshe, at 450. Herder & Herder, 2009.
  7. Eliade, Mircea. Spezzare il tetto della casa, tr. Roberto Scagno, at 65. Jaca, 1988.
  8. For a fuller treatment of this, see my book A Imagem Estilhaçada: Breve Ensaio sobre Realismo, Nominalismo e Filosofia. ViV, 2020.
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