An essential component
of human thought!
In the Masonic approach, it is customary to say "Here everything is symbol! ». In truth, this assertion could be taken up by all followers of esoteric and religious movements and by going further by all living beings.
We owe it to Jean Piaget to have described in his studies on the psychological development of the child the mode of appearance of symbolic thought. But we sometimes forget to keep in mind how important this mode is and the role it plays in the different processes of human thought.
The material and graphic representation is a necessary support but the essential happens at the cerebral level.
Symbolic thinking uses our imaginations which themselves use our memorized representations. It is through them that our processes of reassurance and also our projections and in particular our fantasies are constructed.
Everything happens as if Masonic symbolism induced a language and a meaning which, in a primary understanding, should commit us to adopt an exemplary behaviour of brotherhood and devotion. This desired effect is often accompanied by personal research to better understand both the history of human societies and psychology.
Although the diversity of ritualistic practices often complicates personal approaches, one cannot but be astonished to see, after nearly three hundred years of existence, how much the Masonic approach is a formidable intellectual stimulus!
There is however, in my opinion, a necessary precaution: symbolic thought does not evade affective thought; the two complement each other. Masonic symbolism is sometimes lived in an "ethereal" way and some "specialists" of symbolism sometimes tend to enter a world without affect. It is the mixing of these two thoughts that is sometimes difficult to do with unconscious interferences that disturb both.
When one has just been initiated one can be taken by vertigo in front of the abundance of symbols; one can be tempted to engage in a bookish study with interpretations that can sometimes border on delirium.
The important thing is first of all to understand the specificity of symbolic thought.
Then comes the time of personal reappropriation.
The first work of the new initiate: Appropriating Masonic symbolism!
There's what you read in the books, what you hear in the outfits, and there's what you really adhere to, which comes from this long work of appropriation.
Many factors come into play (cf. the diagram above) which are related to the personality of each person. We can understand the symbols but the most important thing is to love them; it doesn't matter if some of them leave us speechless because we can't imagine appropriating them all!
At each level, some symbols will be more important than others; they are the ones that can become ours!
This work of appropriation can be done more or less quickly, it doesn't matter! To each his own rhythm according to his experience.
Through appropriation, the symbol becomes alive and it will become part of what Piaget defined as symbolic thought, this mysterious process that helps us to clarify our ideas and thoughts.
Art and symbolism
Art can be seen as the site of a tension that has many analogies and interrelationships with symbolism.
Pictorial art, seen as a privileged place of the imaginary, poses the problem of this "madwoman of the home" as Blaise Pascal called her, so much decried by rationalists of all stripes, decried by Plato himself, who sees in it only a process of imitation, limited as a clumsy, partial and incomplete representation of the reality of the "sensitive" world.
Plato is wary of the artistic enterprise, of its pretension to play recklessly with the power of the symbol. He reproaches it for stagnating at the lowest level of the perception of being, and consequently for being a deception all the more dangerous as it is ambitious. Illusion, an additional barrier to the perception of ideas, the world of images would be a diversion from the ideal form in favour of the sensible form.
If I approach this Platonic point of view from the outset, it is to indicate where a reflection will lead us that will try to bring out the profound originality of the symbol in Art.
About the relationship between the image and the signified:
Probably because of the mistrust of the imaginary in the West, the vocabulary corresponding to it is unclear, even devalued: we speak indifferently of "image", "sign", "symbol" or "allegory".
The sign : The first category of signs concerns those which save time, which refer to an undeniable sensitive; they are consequently arbitrary, variable, can be expressed by a number, a letter, a drawing; this is the case for instantaneously indicating that a street is one-way or that Mr Martin lives at number 3;
Allegory: it concerns above all abstract concepts; thus Justice is represented by an allegory such that each of its elements corresponds to a part of the signified: for example a person carrying a scale. The allegory is often plated on a prior thought which is the only condition of its meaning.
The symbol: One could define the symbol as the opposite of the allegory; as Paul Godet wrote in "Sujet symbole dans les arts plastiques", "If the allegory starts from an abstract idea and ends up with a figure, the symbol is first of all a figure and as such a source, among other things, of ideas! "By its nature, the symbol is therefore an appearance of the unspeakable, an epiphany of a part of Reality that escapes the organs of perception or rational understanding. Gilbert Durand, Philosopher and anthropologist of the imaginary, specifies: "Since it is impossible to represent the infigurable transcendence, the symbolic image is transfigured from a concrete representation by a meaning that is forever abstract. "According to Paul Ricoeur, the symbol thus takes on a triple dimension, firstly cosmic since it is an element of the world around us, secondly dreamlike insofar as it is rooted in dreams, memories and the great memory of the species, and thirdly poetic since it is a matter of speech in its most augmented form.
As much as the idol-image closes in on itself, so much the symbol-image establishes a meaning and leads back to a beyond the sensible.
In his autobiography, Goethe explains that "In the living and lifeless, animate and inanimate Nature, I thought I recognized something that manifested itself only in contradictions, and therefore could not be understood in any concept, let alone in a word. It seemed like chance, for no consequences were manifested; it seemed close to Providence; it hinted at a connection. »
Symbolic knowledge is never definitive, never closed, never explicit because it does not refer to a previously established discourse. It is an open door, reminiscence, renewal of the sensitive to forms. Acquisition of unspeakable knowledge, foreboding, the symbol defines the freedom of the human being in its creative dimension.
If the symbol is this seeker's head, if it is invested with this epiphanic capacity, it can be envisaged as a system of virtualities taking their source in the archetypal structures of the unconscious and gradually leading conscious thought to orient itself and to direct its gaze beyond the sensible world, towards the eternal East.
The symbol is thus trans-reflexive, mediator between the microcosm and the macrocosm, reconciliation with the universe.
In Bachelard's words, symbols are the "hormones" of spiritual energy.
The impulsive life is not exhausted in contact with the sensitive world; a surplus seems to be trying to invest itself. The programme inscribed in the genes recognises in what is called "reality" its own face, without however being completely satisfied with this reflection which allows us to imagine other depths. This "remainder" that seeks to live itself is no longer of the order of measure, resists description, grows outside the structures of the self now felt as limits, and finds in the symbol its means of expressing what cannot be said otherwise.