What Counts as Symbolic Thinking?

Cormac JonesSymbolic World Icon
May 9, 2023

One of the initial tasks set before me as the new chief editor of the Symbolic World blog is wrangling all the writers back in from the wild prairies of Substack. In the six months since when the SW barn burned down, all our horses scattered to the fields, one Substack after another appearing in the lonely distance.1 I’m among the worst offenders, so I can speak from experience what it’s like out there. Away from the corral, the freedom from the “Symbolic” label and, further, from the Symbolic World brand, could actually be the source of a certain creative flourishing. Nonetheless, the grub, while nutritious in spots, is quantitatively meager; no one feeds you in the wild. In this metaphor, you see, writers are horses, and readers are the food that we eat. (“Nom nom nom. Mmmm… attention.”) A writer can’t grow without readers, and the Symbolic World website can deliver readers to domesticated writers like myself who otherwise wouldn’t know how to get them — provided we have it in ourselves to work within the identity of the brand. Readers want to be fed too, and according to their tastes; they don’t just give away their attention for nothing.

So what counts as on brand? Jonathan Pageau’s the figurehead here, the source of identity. The conversations he takes interest in on his YouTube channel — and I would also include his work on The Orthodox Arts Journal because that’s where I first encountered him — set parameters for his website that are obvious but incomplete. Naturally they’re incomplete: the whole idea behind his starting a website with other writers is to cover topics that he can’t tackle due to limitations in either time or expertise. So what can we write about? Cosmological patterns in traditional stories and art, for starters; and from there the inevitability of ritual penetrating all aspects of life. Then, from that basis, the inner workings of identity and consciousness, Vervaeke’s relevance realization, anything that emerges and/or emanates, riffing off of both neoplatonic and postmodern philosophies. His brother’s book The Language of Creation is of course an important touchstone. There we’re introduced to the cosmological categories of heaven and earth, and of what he calls space symbolism and time symbolism, which I would identify in more traditional terms such as stasis and kinesis, stability and change. Matthieu’s self-referential approach, not referencing any sources but the Bible, is not something carried over on the blog hosted by Jonathan. The previous chief editor J.P. Marceau insisted on grounding one’s thoughts with citations; there are important reasons for that policy, which I won’t be abandoning. The thrust of symbolic thinking should lead to communion with others, and in the realm of intellectual life, the discipline of referencing other thinkers is a step in that direction.

But the content of The Language of Creation is foundational. In Jonathan’s presentation of the material, the end result of contemplating heaven and earth, stability and change, constitutes a whole cosmological vision hierarchically layered by means of a fractal pattern — the pattern of the one and the many, how the one and the many are distinguished, and how they interrelate. How multiplication and unification coexist, and how this way of thinking explains the most basic phenomena of our daily lives. Anything neoplatonic pretty much is going to be on brand for the website. But neoplatonism does not exhaustively describe Jonathan Pageau’s intellectual identity. The centrality of an ecstatic Christian love both multiplying and unifying the cosmos transforms a merely neoplatonic fractal into something else. In the Christian model, the interplay of the one and the many is joined by distinctions not just between being and nonbeing but between created and Uncreated. Being and nonbeing are significant as the directional orientations associated with good and evil. The distinction between created and Uncreated, meanwhile, requires the praxis of apophatic theology. Here in these three dyads — the one and the many, being and nonbeing, created and Uncreated — we see the order of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth expounded by the author of The Ethics of Beauty Timothy Patitsas.

Patitsas was once a guest on Jonathan’s YouTube channel, so discussing symbolism in this context should be on brand. But while Jonathan from time to time may open the door to ethical questions of good and evil on one hand, or the door to strictly theological discussions, on the other, he as a rule does not walk through those doors. He for example regularly and deliberately eschews both politics and Trinitarian theology in all his public-facing content. He might touch on them lightly if forced to, indicating delicately what his certain beliefs are, but then he’ll immediately recoil in existential horror from talking about either topic. This behavior indicates to me where the margins of the blog can be identified. You always have to leave a margin — if you want to maintain identity with The Symbolic World, that is. Politics below and Trinitarian theology above are fringe for this website.

But can we deduce anything more from these parameters? On our personal Substacks, we’ll freely discuss any number of topics that intuitively feel outside the bounds of The Symbolic World identity. Can we get any more granular in our description? What makes politics fringe? What makes Trinitarian theology fringe? I’ll admit I’m viewing this whole question through the lens of my own ideas, which can only ever be of relative value. Whether I end up publishing this article on the central Symbolic World website or on the marginal Cormac Jones Journal Substack will be determined by how relevant and helpful my SW peers find it to our communal work. It would be counted helpful, I imagine, if it proved a jumping-off point, liberating the minds of others to be fruitful within the existing SW brand. It would be counted unhelpful, though, if it imposed on writers a framework of ideas that diverted them from the binding identity provided by Jonathan Pageau. If you’re reading this on Substack, it is not to be inferred that my peers necessarily rejected its content, only that they placed it beyond the solid identity of the SW brand. If you’re reading this on The Symbolic World, it is not to be inferred that this is an article that necessarily should be referred to ever again. The objective is to liberate the mind to work within existing symbolistic parameters, not to bind the mind with shackles to one frame of seeing symbolism.

So my big idea about the parameters of symbolic thinking is expressed through a chart of various thought processes, a version of which I first drew up in college many years ago.2 I place the realm of symbolic thinking somewhere roughly in the middle, with the apophatic heavens hosting the fringe of Trinitarian theology (among other things) and the dialectical underworld providing a home for, for example, the fringe of polarized (and polarizing) politics.

The distinction between what I call here antinomy and opposition I first learned studying the presocratic philosophers.3 Heraclitus epitomizes opposition in positing the unity of opposites in fields of striving flux. Parmenides epitomizes antinomy in his strident use of negation by means of contradiction. Advantages and drawbacks mark both philosophical methods; indeed, despite their contrary vectors of logic relative to their opposite-facing perspectives, they nonetheless exist as the polarized terminals of a single dialectical field. Heraclitus is like the south pole of a bar magnet, with his dialectical vectors pointing in, and Parmenides is like the north pole with his vectors pointing out. In recent years I’ve come to recognize the way the Church Fathers discuss the lower passions of the soul, the incensive power (thymos, or anger) and the appetitive power (epithymia, or desire), conforms to the same polarized pattern. With anger we repel from the soul in a bid for control, the failure of which results in anxiety — and with desire we attract to the soul in a bid for fulfillment, the failure of which results in depression. Again the vectors run in contrary directions relative to thymos on the right and epithymia on the left, but like the two poles of a bar magnet, they both participate in the same impassioned field of the soul. Evagrius for example will speak about turning away from pleasures so as to cut off the occasions for anger.4 These teachings are well rooted in the Bible and Hellenic philosophy both, and overlap a good deal with Eastern thought in ancient India and China. They’re plainly natural to human experience.

Politics, then, can easily be seen to be about managing this polarized psychology on a very large fractal scale. Relatively speaking, the political right recapitulates thymos, prioritizing law and order, repulsive national identity and the like, and the political left recapitulates epithymia, prioritizing entitlement programs, impulsive sexual identity and the like. Both have their illogical excesses, to which each is sensitive in the other and insensitive in themselves; and both have a purposeful role to play, to which each is sensitive in themselves and insensitive in the other. (To contrarian idiots like myself, whichever side appears to be in power always seems to be the worst, but I do not mistake this inclination for insight.) My point in describing politics this way is not to shift the focus of the blog, but to illustrate the pattern of thought that we already have established is not part of the blog, or at least not core to its identity. Works of pure dialectic, meanwhile, or works that are predominantly dialectical, defining things by means of opposition and negation, partake of the same pattern of polarized thinking. This observation would suggest that such works too are fringe to symbolic thinking and should not define The Symbolic World. I think that’s a helpful connection to draw, but would leave it to the community of writers and readers to agree or disagree.

Lest, however, I spend too much time defining symbolic thinking by what it’s not, like some uncouth (because unsymbolistic) dialectician, let me look a little at the logical alternative to defining things in opposition to each other. That would be defining things in relation with each other, or as I call it on my chart, analogy (ἀναλογία). Here we encounter a mode of thinking fundamental to symbolism and the hierarchies of meaning entailed by a symbolic worldview. The one and the many are understood in relation with each other by means of layers of analogy. Poets from ancient times have operated in this mode with every simile and metaphor they compose, every line of Homeric verse like another wave of cosmic ocean on which floats our forlorn Achaean hero. Defining things in relation with each other draws them into unity, bringing meaning to minutia, beauty to the banal. Analogy performed this way is a rational activity. Anagogy (ἀναγωγή), on the other hand, one step up on my chart, is not altogether dissimilar, but its effect on rationality is transformative. Analogy may be the logical alternative to dialectic, but anagogy is the spiritual alternative.

I should clarify which sense of anagogy I mean, though. St. John Cassian, writing in the Latin West after having been formed in 4th-century Egypt and made a deacon by St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople, categorized anagogy (which etymologically means “to lead up” or “to carry up and above”) as just one of three types of spiritual, non-historical hermeneutics, along with allegory (the prophetic sense) and tropology (the moral sense). For example Jerusalem, historically the city of the Judeans, can be spiritually understood according to allegory as the Church of Christ, according to anagogy as the heavenly city of God which is “the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26), and according to tropology as the soul of the human being.5 These categorizations, which become seminal in the West, have roots in Origen, but already in that 3rd-century Alexandrian teacher, anagogy becomes a catch-all of spiritual hermeneutics distinct from but not opposed to, indeed found within, the historical sense of a text.6 This more general sense of anagogy, incorporating all spiritual readings be they allegorical, tropological, mystical, cosmological, ecclesiological, soteriological, or (all of the above:) Christological, held sway in the East and is characteristic, for example, of how St. Maximus the Confessor uses the term in his very influential hermeneutical writings.7 Under his influence, this is how I use the term.

How does anagogy relate to symbolism, then, and what do I mean by its transformative effect on rationality? The expression of this idea is something I’m still working on, and I don’t have to settle on a description here. But I’ll make some attempts: Perhaps it could be said that whereas analogy binds in unity the things of the world as if from an objective perspective, anagogy recognizes the observer’s position within the cosmos and seeks a subjective participation in the raising up of creation to its source of being. Or, say, in a pre-Christian context, Pythagoras may be using analogical thinking when he compares the seven planets to musical notes, but he’s behaving anagogically when he turns this connection into religious practice incorporating prayer and ascetic discipline. Homer as he has been read since the Enlightenment, perhaps since Ovid, may be reducible to rational analogy, but in his original context of storytelling ritual, replete with sincere belief in the gods and heroes as real, the cathartic effect of his epics amounts to anagogy. Or perhaps after a neoplatonic fashion, analogy entails the procession of meaning from the one to the many, and anagogy the return of meaning to its origin — an origin that is superior to reason according to reason’s own reasoning.

Analogy and anagogy may similarly draw things together in relationship, but there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between them. Perhaps it’s analogous to the cosmological difference between paradise and heaven. After having charted out my “Tree of Knowledge,” I discovered the pattern had precedent in the five mediations of Christ plotted out by St. Maximus the Confessor in Ambiguum 41:8

The way this chart maps analogously onto the former is quite coherent. Here we see how paradise is a garden situated on earth, planted and emerging from within its parameters, whereas heaven — that is the sensible heaven, which in English we can call the sky and all its perceived contents — complements the earth and performs for it hierarchically superior services, feeding it light and water, stirring it with wind, and regulating the times and seasons. By use of analogy itself we may thus understand the difference between analogy (paradise) and anagogy (heaven). And if by means of ritual sacrifice and moral obedience we were to participate in the Christian mediation of these cosmic layers (observable at least in part already in pre-Christian sources), we might in our intercourse with the illuminating logoi of creation come to know a little something of anagogy.

These paradisal (analogical) and heavenly (anagogical) pathways of being I would place firmly within the identity of Pageauvian symbolism appropriate for this blog. The best articles here have always been about drawing connections and linking patterns, symbolic ideas that while grounded in communion with others yet surprise readers by, minimally, transforming elements of their lives with an analogical procession of meaning and then, possibly, pointing the way to an anagogical return to meaning’s source. The path to that source, it is true, must needs go beyond kataphatic expression (to refer back to my first chart above), lest one’s object of worshipful attention be depicted as wholly and idolatrously within the realm of creation. For analogously (referring to my second chart now), kataphatic thinking (positive expression) relates to visible creation, whereas apophatic thinking (negative expression) relates to invisible creation. Not coincidentally, I don’t believe, is one Church Father, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, a seminal source for the description of both apophatic theology and the structure of the angelic hierarchies. The angelic beings, invisible to our bodily eyes, negate their autonomy so purely as to bear Uncreated Light to those below them in a hierarchical chain of revelation. This too is the theological purpose of apophatic, negative expressions for God, which St. Dionysius the Areopagite duly negates as well, identifying God as beyond all assertion and denial both.9 Equally, we may say, is God above all visible human beings and invisible angelic beings.

But the apophatic ways of unknowing proper to theology — and observable in a pre-Christian context most vividly in the Tao Te Ching — comprise whole fields of study and praxis peripheral to the Symbolic World mission. The website would lose its identity if it became a theological journal for Christian seminarians to submit all their coursework to. Or to consider the non-Christian context: Laozi, it is true, makes copious use of analogy and anagogy (and dialectic) in the Tao Te Ching, but his knowledge throughout is leavened with an apophatic unknowing; it would be hard for me to imagine someone writing a Symbolic World article on the topic that wouldn’t make itself marginal either to Taoist thought or to symbolism or, likely, to both. Admittedly it can be possible in certain contexts to publish marginal material, be it dialectical reasoning or apophatic theology, scientific or mystical, political or Trinitarian — you always have to leave a margin! The fringe of a buckskin jacket isn’t all leather, and it isn’t all vacant space. But such a garment on the whole is solid skin, and it has to stay that way if it is to be good at what it does.

Cormac Jones writes here on The Symbolic World and on Substack at  The Cormac Jones Journal.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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1.  I’ve started compiling a list of such Substacks here.

2.  I gave a roundabout introduction to this chart and the following one in my Substack post, “Ideas as fiction.”

3.  I cover this topic more in depth in my Substack post, “The initiation of dialectic in ancient Greece.”

4.  Quoted by St. Dorotheus of Gaza in support of the statement that “Anger has diverse causes but the principal one is love of pleasure.” In Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, trans. by Eric P. Wheeler (Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 187.

5.  St. John Cassian, Conferences, trans. by Boniface Ramsey (Paulist Press, 1997), p. 510.

6.  See Paul M. Blowers, Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), p. 185.

7.  See ibid., p. 191.

8.  See Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, vol. II, trans. by Nicholas Constas (Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 103ff.

9.  See St. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology 5, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. by Colm Luibheid (Paulist Press, 1987), p. 141; mentioned also in The Divine Names 2.4, in ibid., p. 61.

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