Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Fortune, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 1944, 127-128, 139-140, 142, 144, 146, 148, 150, 152, 154. 

Text under the title reads: “Man’s behavior, always odder than beasts’, is now more dangerously odd than ever.  Here a philosopher examines the reasons why.” 

On page 126 there is a collage illustrating her theme.  The text of the caption for it, set in the lower left corner of the first page of text on page 127, reads: “Beasts go realistically about their own business but man’s head is ever full of notions, expressed in all manner of symbols.  He personifies the sun and moon.  He scratches out lines and triangles representing men and hills.  He evolves the compound symbolism of language and invents the legend of the Tower of Babel to explain the confusion of tongues.  He contemplates his own birth and death, and sees in the elements a mirror of his own feelings.  These activities of man’s mind are suggested in the collage at the left.  In the article beginning on this page, Susanne K. Langer sketches the process by which man’s gift for symbol making has led him to his present powers and perplexities.  She sees men struggling with adaptations of old tribal symbols and in search of symbols adequate for a world community.  Mrs. Langer, author of Philosophy in a New Key, taught for many years at Radcliffe.  At present she is engaged in developing a course in philosophy and logic as a part of basic general education.”

Posted July 8, 2008

 Anthony Flood


The Lord of Creation

Susanne K. Langer

The world is aflame with man-made public disasters, artificial rains of brimstone and fire, planned earthquakes, cleverly staged famines and floods.  The Lord of Creation is destroying himself.  He is throwing down the cities he has built, the works of his own hand, the wealth of many thousand years in his frenzy of destruction, as a child knocks down its own handiwork, the whole days’ achievement, in a tantrum of tears and rage. 

What has displeased the royal child?  What has incurred his world-shattering tantrum?

The bafflement of the magnificent game he is playing.  Its rules and its symbols, his divine toys, have taken possession of the player.  For this global war is not the old, hard, personal fight for the means of life, bellum omnium contra omnes, which animals perpetually wage; this is a war of monsters.  Not mere men but great superpersonal giants, the national states, are met in combat.  They do not hate and attack and wrestle as injured physical creatures do; they move heavily, inexorably, by strategy and necessity, to each other’s destruction.  The game of national states has come to this pass, and the desperate players ride their careening animated toys to a furious suicide.

They are symbols of the new way of life, which the past two centuries have given us.  For thousands of years, the pattern of daily life—working, praying, building, fighting, and raising new generations—repeated itself with only slow or unessential changes.  The social symbols expressive of this life were ancient and familiar.  Tribal gods or local saints, patriarchs, squires, or feudal lords, princes and bishops, raised to the highest power in the persons of emperors and popes—they were all expressions of needs and duties and opinions grounded in an immemorial way of life.  The average man’s horizon was not much greater than his valley, his town, or whatever geographical ramparts bounded his community.  Economic areas were small, and economic problems essentially local.  Naturally in his conception the powers governing the world were local, patriarchal, and reverently familiar.

Then suddenly, within some two hundred years, and for many places far less than that, the whole world has been transformed.  Communities of different tongues and faiths and physiognomies have mingled; not as of old in wars of conquest, invading lords and conquered population gradually mixing their two stocks, but by a new process of foot-loose travel and trade, dominated by great centers of activity that bring individuals from near and far promiscuously together as a magnet draws filings from many heaps into close but quite accidental contact.  Technology has made old horizons meaningless and localities indefinite.  For goods and their destinies determine the structure of human societies.  This is a new world, a world of persons, not of families and clans, or parishes and manors.  The proletarian order is not founded on a hearth and its history.  It does not express itself in a dialect, a local costume, a rite, a patron saint.  All such traditions by mingling have canceled each other, and disappeared.

Most of us feel that since the old controlling ideas of faith and custom are gone, mankind is left without anchorage of any sort.  None of the old social symbols fit this modern reality, this shrunken and undifferentiated  world in which we lead a purely economic, secular, essentially homeless life.

But mankind is never without its social symbols; when old ones die, new ones are already in process of birth; and the new gods that have superseded all faiths are the great national states.  The conception of them is mystical and moral, personal and devotional; they conjure with names and emblems, and demand our constant profession and practice of the new orthodoxy called “Patriotism.”


The Paradox of Reason and Folly

Of all born creatures, man is the only one that cannot live by bread alone.  He lives as much by symbols as by sense report, in a realm compounded of tangible things and virtual images, of actual events and ominous portents, always between fact and fiction.  For he sees not only actualities but meanings.  He has, indeed, all the impulses and interests of animal nature; he eats, sleeps, mates, seeks comfort and safety, flees pain, falls sick and dies, just as cats and bears and fishes and butterflies do.  But he has something more in his repertoire, too—he has laws and religions, theories and dogmas, because he lives not only through sense but through symbols.  That is the special asset of his mind, which makes him the master of earth and all its progeny.

By the agency of symbols—marks, words, mental images, and icons of all sorts—he can hold his ideas for contemplation long after their original causes  have passed away.  Therefore, he can think of things that are not presented or even suggested by his actual environment.  By associating symbols in his mind, he combines things and events that were never together in the real world.  This gives him the power we call imagination.  Further, he can symbolize only part of an idea and let the rest go out of his consciousness; this gives  him the faculty that has been his pride throughout the ages—the power of abstraction.  The combined effect of these two powers is inestimable.  They are the roots of his supreme talent, the gift of reason.

In the war of each against all, which is the course of nature, man has an unfair advantage over his animal brethren; for he can see what is not yet there to be seen, know events that happened before his birth, and take possession of more than he actually eats; he can kill at a distance; and by rational design he can enslave other creatures to live and act for him instead of for themselves.

Yet this mastermind has strange aberrations.  For in the whole animal kingdom there is no such unreason, no such folly and impracticality as man displays.  He alone is hounded by imaginary fears, beset by ghosts and devils, frightened by mere images of things.  No other creature wastes time in unprofitable ritual or builds nests for dead specimens of its race.  Animals are always realists.  They have intelligence in varying degrees—chickens are stupid, elephants are said to be very clever—but, bright or foolish, animals react only to reality.  They may be fooled by appearance, by pictures or reflections, but once they know them as such, they promptly lose interest.  Distance and darkness and silence are not fearful to them, filled with voices or forms, or invisible presences.  Sheep in the pasture do not seem to fear phantom sheep beyond the fence, and mice don’t look for mice goblins in the clock, birds do not worship a divine thunderbird.

But oddly enough, men do.  They think of all these things and guard against them, worshiping animals and monsters even before they conceive of divinities in their own image.  Men are essentially unrealistic.  With all their extraordinary intelligence, they alone go in for  patently impractical actions—magic and exorcisms and holocausts—rites that have no connection with common-sense methods of self-preservation, such as a highly intelligent animal might use.  In fact, the rites and sacrifices by which primitive man claims to control nature are sometimes fatal to the performers.  Indian puberty rites are almost always intensely painful, and African natives have sometimes died during initiations into honorary societies.

We usually assume that very primitive tribes of men are closer to animal estate than highly civilized races; but in respect of practical attitudes, this is not true.  The more primitive man’s mind, the more fantastic it seems to be; only with high intellectual disciplines do we gradually approach the realistic outlook of intelligent animals.

Yet this human mind, so beclouded by phantoms and superstitions, is probably the only mind on earth that can reach out to an awareness of things beyond its practical environment and can also conceive of such notions as truth, beauty, justice, majesty, space and time and creation.


The Paradox of Morality and Cruelty

There is another paradox in man’s relationship with other creatures: namely, that those very qualities he calls animality—”brutal,” “bestial,” “inhuman”—are peculiarly his own.  No other animal is so deliberately cruel as man.  No other creature intentionally imprisons its own kind, or invents special instruments of  torture such as racks and thumbscrews for the sole purpose of punishment.  No other animal keeps his own brethren in slavery; so far as we know, the lower animals do not commit anything like the acts of pure sadism that figure rather largely in our newspapers.  There is no torment, spite, or cruelty for its own sake among beasts, as there is among men.  A cat plays with its prey, but does not conquer and torture smaller cats.  But man, who knows good and evil, is cruel for cruelty’s sake; he who has a moral law is more brutal than the brutes, who have none; he alone inflicts suffering on his fellows with malice aforethought.


The Great Projector

The answer is, I think, that man’s mind is not a direct evolution from the beast’s mind, but is a unique variant and therefore has had a meteoric and startling career very different from any other animal history.  The trait that sets human mentality apart from every other is its preoccupation with symbols, with images that mean things, rather than with things themselves.  This trait may have been a mere sport of nature once upon a time.  Certain creatures do develop traits and interests that seem biologically unimportant.  Pack rats, for instance, and some birds of the crow family take a capacious pleasure in bright objects and carry away such things for which they have, presumably, no earthly use.  Perhaps man’s tendency to see certain forms as images, to hear certain sounds not only as signals but as expressive tones, and to be excited by sunset colors or starlight, was originally just a peculiar sensitivity in a rather highly developed  brain.  But whatever its cause, the ultimate destiny of this trait was momentous, for all human activity is based on the appreciation and use of symbols.  Language, religion, mathematics, all learning, science and superstition, even right and wrong, are products of symbolic expression rather than direct experience.  Our commonest words, such as “house” and “red” and “walking,” are symbols; the pyramids of Egypt and the mysterious circle of Stonehenge are symbols; so are dominions and empires and astronomical universes.  We live in a mind-made world, where the things of prime importance are images or worlds that embody ideas and feelings and attitudes.

The animal mind is like a telephone exchange; it receives stimuli from outside through the sense organs and sends the appropriate responses through the nerves that govern muscles, glands, and other parts of the body.  The organism is constantly interacting with its surroundings, receiving messages reacting on the new state of affairs that the messages signify.

But the human mind is not a simply transmitter like a telephone exchange.  It is more like a great projector; for instead of merely mediating between an event in the outer world and a creature’s responsive action, it transforms or, if you will, distorts the event into an image to be looked at, retained, and contemplated.  For the images of things that we remember are not exact and faithful transcriptions even of our actual sense impressions.  They are made as much by what we think as by what we see.  It is a well-known fact that if you ask several people the size of the moon’s disk as they look at it, their estimates will vary from the area of a dime to that of a barrel top.  Like a magic lantern, the mind projects its ideas of things on the screen of what we call “memory”; but like all projections, these ideas are transformations of actual things.  They are, if fact, symbols of reality, not pieces of it.


Signs and Symbols

A symbol is not the same thing as a sign; that is a fact that psychologists and philosophers often overlook.  All intelligent animals use signs; so do we.  To them as well as to us sounds and smells and motions are signs of food, danger, the presence of other beings, or of rain or storm.  Furthermore, some animals not only attend to signs but produce them for the benefit of others.  Dogs bark at the door to be let in; rabbits thump to call each other; the cooing of doves and the growl of a wolf defending his kill are unequivocal signs of feelings and intentions to be reckoned with by other creatures.

We use signs just as animals do, though with considerably more elaboration.  We stop at red lights and go on green; we answer calls and bells, watch the sky for coming storms, read trouble or promise or anger in each other’s eyes.  That is animal intelligence raised to the human level.  Those of us who are dog lovers can probably all tell wonderful stories of how high or dogs have sometimes risen in the scale of clever sign interpretation and sign using.

A sign is anything that announces the existence or the imminence of some event, the presence of a thing or a person, or a change in a state of affairs.  There are signs of the weather, signs of danger, signs of future good or evil, signs of what the past has been.  In every case a sign is closely bound up with something to be noted or expected in experience.  It is always a part of the situation to which it refers, though the reference may be remote in space and time.  In so far as we are led to note or expect the signified event we are making correct use of a sign.  This is the essence of rational behavior, which animals show in varying degrees.  It is entirely realistic, being closely bound up with the actual objective course of history—learned by experience, and cashed in or voided by further experience.

If man had kept to the straight and narrow path of sign using, he would be like the other animals, though perhaps a little brighter.  He would not talk, but grunt and gesticulate and point.  He would make his wishes known, give warnings, perhaps develop a social system like that of bees and ants, with such a wonderful efficiency of communal enterprise that all men would have plenty to eat, warm apartments—all exactly alike and perfectly convenient—to live in, and everybody could and would sit in the sun or by the fir, as the climate demanded, not talking but just basking, with every want satisfied, most of his life.  The young would romp and make love, the old sleep, the middle-aged would do the routine work almost unconsciously and eat a great deal.  But that would be the life of a social, superintelligent, purely sign-using animal.

To us who are human, it does not sound very glorious.  We want to go places and do things, own all sorts of gadgets that we do not absolutely need, and when we sit downto take it easy we want to talk. Rights and property, social position, special talents and virtues, and above all our ideas, are what we live for.  We have gone off on a tangent that takes us far away from the mere biological cycle that animal generations accomplish; and that is because we can use not only signs but symbols.

A symbol differs from a sign in that it does not announce the presence of the object, the being, condition, or whatnot, which is its meaning, but merely brings this thing to mind.  It is not a mere “substitute sign” to which we react as though it were the object itself.  The fact is that our reaction to hearing a person’s name is quite different from our reaction to the person himself.  There are certain rare cases where a symbol stands directly for its meaning: in religious experience, for instance, the Host is not only a symbol but a Presence.  But symbols in the ordinary sense are not mystic.  They are the same sort of thing that ordinary signs are; only they do not call our attention to something necessarily present or to be physically dealt with—they call up merely a conception of the thing they “mean.”

The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized.  Therein lies the great importance of symbolism human life, its power to make this life so different from any other animal biography that generations of men have found it incredible to suppose that they were of purely zoological origin.  A sign is always embedded in reality, in a present that emerges from the actual past and stretches to the future: but a symbol may be divorced from reality altogether.  It may refer to what is not the case, to a mere idea, a figment, a dream.  It serves, therefore, to liberate thought from the immediate stimuli of a physically present world; and that liberation marks the essential difference between human and nonhuman mentality.  Animals think, but they think of and at things; men think primarily about things.  Words, pictures, and memory images are symbols may be combined and varied in a thousand ways.  The result is a symbolic structure whose meaning is a complex of all their respective meanings, and this kaleidoscope of ideas is the typical product of the human brain that we call the “stream of thought.”


The Need of Symbolic Expression

The process of transforming all direct experience into imagery or into that supreme mode of symbolic expression, language, has so completely taken possession of the human mind that it is not only a special talent but a dominant, organic need.  All our sense impressions leave their traces in our memory not only as signs disposing our practical reactions in the future but also as symbols, images representing our ideas of things; and the tendency to manipulate ideas, to combine and abstract, mix and extend them by playing with symbols, is man’s outstanding characteristic.  It seems to be what his brain most naturally and spontaneously does.  Therefore his primitive mental function is not judging reality, but dreaming his desires.

Dreaming is apparently a basic function of human brains, for it is free and unexhausting like our metabolism, heartbeat, and breath.  It is easier to dream than not to dream, as it is easier to breathe than to refrain from breathing.  The symbolic character of dreams is fairly well established.  Symbol mongering, on this ineffectual, uncritical level, seems to be instinctive, the fulfillment of an elementary need rather than the purposeful exercise of a high and difficult talent.

The special power of man’s mind rests on the evolution of this special activity, not on any transcendently high development of animal intelligence.  We are not immeasurably higher than other animals; we are different.  We have a biological need and with it a biological gift that they do not share.

Because man has not only the ability but the constant need of conceiving what has happened to him, what surrounds him, what is demanded of him—in short, of symbolizing nature, himself, and his hopes and fears—he has a constant and crying need of expression.  What he cannot express, he cannot conceive; what he cannot conceive is chaos, and fills him with terror.

If we bear in mind this all-important craving for expression we get a new picture of man’s behavior; for from this trait spring his powers and his weaknesses.  The process of symbolic transformation that all our experiences undergo is nothing more nor less than the process of conception, which underlies the human faculties of abstraction and imagination.

When we are faced with a strange or difficult situation, we cannot react directly, as other creatures do, with flight, aggression, or any such simple instinctive pattern.  Our whole reaction depends on how we manage to conceive the situation—whether we cast it in a definite dramatic form, whether we see it as a disaster, a challenge, a fulfillment of doom, or a fiat of the Divine Will.  In words or dreamlike images, in artistic or religious or even in cynical form, we must construe the events of life.  There is great virtue in the figure of speech, “I can make nothing of it,” to express a failure to understand something.  Thought and memory are processes of making the thought content and the memory image; the pattern of our ideas is given by the symbols through which we express them.  And in the course of manipulating those symbols we inevitably distort the original experience, as we abstract certain features of it, embroider and reinforce those features with other ideas, until the conception we project on the screen of memory is quite different from anything in our real history.

Conception is a necessary and elementary process; what we do with our conceptions is another story.  That is the entire history of human culture—of intelligence and morality, folly and superstition, ritual, language, and the arts—all the phenomena that set man apart from, and above, the rest of the animal kingdom.  As the religious mind has to make all human history a drama of sin and salvation in order to define its own moral attitudes, so a scientist wrestles with the mere presentation of “the facts” before he can reason about them.  The process of envisaging facts, values, hopes, and fears underlies our whole behavior pattern; and this process is reflected in the evolution of an extraordinary phenomenon found always, and only, in human societies—the phenomenon of language.


The Language Line

Language is the highest and most amazing achievement of the symbolistic human mind.  The power it bestows is almost inestimable, for without it anything properly called “thought” is impossible.  The birth of language is the dawn of humanity.  The line between man and beast—between the highest ape and the lowest savage—is the language line. Whether the primitive Neanderthal man was anthropoid or human depends less on his cranial capacity, his upright posture, or even his use of tools and fire, than on one issue we shall probably never be able to settle—whether or not he spoke.

In all physical traits and practical responses, such as skills and visual judgments, we can find a certain continuity between animal and human mentality.  Sign using is an ever evolving, ever improving function throughout the whole animal kingdom, from the lowly worm that shrinks into his hole at the sound of an approaching foot, to the dog obeying his master’s command, and even to the learned scientist who watches the movements of an index needle.

This continuity of the sign-using talent has led psychologists to the belief that language is evolved from the vocal expressions, grunts and coos and cries, whereby animals vent their feelings or signal their fellows; that man has elaborated this sort of communion to the point where it makes a perfect exchange of ideas possible.

I do not believe that this doctrine of the origin of language is correct.  The essence of language is symbolic, not signific: we use it first and most vitally to formulate and hold ideas in our own minds. Conception, not social control, is its first and foremost benefit.

Watch a young child that is just learning to speak play with a toy; he says the name of the object, e.g.: “Horsey! horsey! horsey!” over and over again, looks at the object, moves it, always saying the name to himself or to the world at large.  It is quite a time before he talks to anyone in particular; he talks first of all to himself.  This is his way of forming and fixing the conception of the object in his mind, and around this conception all his knowledge of it grows.  Names are the essence of language; for the name is what abstracts the conception of the horse from the horse itself, and lets the mere idea recur at the speaking of the name.  This permits the conception gathered from one horse experience to be exemplified again by another instance of a horse, so that the notion embodied in the name is a general notion.

To this end, the baby uses a word long before he asks for the object; when he wants his horsey he is likely to cry and fret, because he is reacting to an actual environment, not forming ideas. He uses the animal language of signs for his wants; talking is still a purely symbolic process—its practical value has not really impressed him yet.

Language need not be vocal; it may be purely visual, like written language, or even tactual, like the deaf-mute system of speech; but it must be denotative.  The sounds, intended or unintended, whereby animals communicate do not constitute a language, because they are signs, not names.  They never fall into an organic pattern, a meaningful syntax of even the most rudimentary sort, as all language seems to do with a sort of driving necessity.  That is because signs refer to actual situations, in which things have obvious relations to each other that require only to be noted; but symbols refer to ideas, which are not physically there for inspection, so their connections and features have to be represented.  This gives all true language a natural tendency toward growth and development, which seems almost like a life of its own.  Languages are not invented; they grow with our need for expression.

In contrast, animal “speech” never has a structure.  It is merely an emotional response.  Apes may greet their ration of yams with a shout of “‘Nga” But they do not ‘‘Nga’’ between meals.  If they could talk about their yams instead of just saluting them, they would be the most primitive men instead of the most anthropoid of beasts.  They would have ideas, and tell each other things true or false, rational or irrational; they would make plans and invent laws and sing their own praises, as men do.


Articulate Forms

The history of speech is the history of our human descent.   Yet the habit of transforming reality into symbols, of contemplating and combining and distorting symbols, goes beyond the confines of language.  All images are symbols, which make us think about the things they mean.

This is the source of man’s great interest in “graven images,” and in mere appearances like the face of the moon or the human profiles he sees in rocks and trees.  There is no limit to the meanings he can read into natural phenomena.  As long as this power is undisciplined, the sheer enjoyment of finding meanings in everything, the elaboration of concepts without any regard to truth and usefulness, seems to run riot; superstition and ritual in their pristine strength go through what some anthropologists have called a “vegetative” stage, when dreamlike symbols, gods and ghouls and rites, multiply like the overgrown masses of life in a jungle.  From this welter of symbolic forms emerge the images that finally govern a civilization; the great symbols of religion, society, and selfhood.

What does an image “mean?”  Anything it is thought to resemble.  It is only because we can abstract quite unobvious forms from the actual appearance of things that we see in drawings in two dimensions as images of colored, three-dimensional objects, find the likeness of a dipper in a constellation of seven stars, or see a face on a pansy.  Any circle may represent the sun or moon; an upright monolith may be a man.

Wherever we can fancy a similarity we tend to see something represented.  The first thing we do, upon seeing a new shape is to assimilate it to our own idea of something that it resembles, something that is known and important to us.  Our most elementary concepts are of our own actions, and the limbs or organs that perform them; other things are named by comparison with them.  The opening of a cave is its mouth, the divisions of a river its arms.  Language, and with it all articulate thought, grows by this process of unconscious metaphor.  Every new idea urgently demands a word; if we lack a name for it, we call it after the first namable thing seen to bear even a remote analogy to it.  Thus all the subtle and variegated vocabulary of a living language grows up from a few roots of very general application; words as various in meaning as “gentle” and “ingenious” and “general” spring from the one root “ge” meaning “to give life.”

Yet there are conceptions that language is, constitutionally unfit to express.  The reason for this limitation of our verbal powers is a subject for logicians and need not concern us here.  The point of interest to us is that, just as rational, discursive thought is bound up with language, so the life of feeling, or direct personal and social consciousness, the emotional stability of man and his sense of orientation in the world are bound up with images directly given to his senses: fire and water, noise and silence, high mountains and deep caverns, the brief beauty of flowers, the persistent grin of a skull. There seem to be irresistible parallels between the expressive forms we find in nature and the forms of our inner life; thus the use of light to represent all things good, joyful, comforting, and of darkness to express all sorts of sorrow, despair, or horror, is so primitive as to be well-nigh unconscious.

A flame is a soul; a star is a hope; the silence of winter is death.  All such images, which serve the purpose of metaphorical thinking, are natural symbols.  They have not conventionally assigned meanings, like words, but recommend themselves even to a perfectly untutored mind, a child’s or a savage’s, because they are definitely articulated forms, and to see something expressed in such forms is a universal human talent.  We do not have to learn to use natural symbols; it is one of our primitive activities.

The fact that sensuous forms of natural processes have a significance beyond themselves makes the range of our symbolism, and with it the horizon of our consciousness, much wider and deeper than language.  This is the source of ritual, mythology, and art.  Ritual is a symbolic rendering of certain emotional attitudes, which have become articulate and fixed by being constantly expressed.  Mythology is man’s image of his world, and of himself in the world.  Art is the exposition of his own subjective history, the life of feeling, the human spirit in all its adventures.


Vision and Legacy

Yet this power of envisagement, which natural symbolism bestows, is a dangerous one; for human beings can envisage things that do not exist, and create horrible worlds, insupportable duties, monstrous gods and ancestors.  The mind that can see past and future, the poles and the antipodes, and guess at obscure mechanisms of nature, is ever in danger of seeing what is not there, imagining false and fantastic causes, and courting death instead of life.  Because man can play with ideas, he is unrealistic; he is inclined to neglect the all-important interpretation of signs for a rapt contemplation of symbols.

Some twenty years ago, Ernst Cassirer set forth a theory of human mentality that goes far toward explaining the vagaries of savage religions and the ineradicable presence of superstition even in civilized societies: a symbol, he observed, is the embodiment of an idea; it is at once an abstract and a physical fact.  Now its great emotive value lies in the concept it conveys; this inspires our reverent attitude, the attention and awe with which we view it.  But man’s untutored thought always tends to lose its way between the symbol and the fact.  A skull represents death; but to a primitive mind the skull is death.  To have it in the house is not unpleasant but dangerous.  Even in civilized societies, symbolic objects—figures of saints, relics, crucifixes—are revered for their supposed efficacy.  Their actual power is a power of expression, of embodying and thus revealing the greatest concepts humanity has reached; these concepts are the commanding forces that change our estate from a brute existence to the transcendent life of the spirit.  But the symbol-loving mind of man reveres the meaning not through the articulating form but in the form so that the image appears to be the actual object of love and fear, supplication and praise.

Because of this constant identification of concepts with their expressions, our world is crowded with unreal beings.  Some societies have actually realized that these beings do not belong to nature, and have postulated a so-called “other world” where they have their normal existence and from which they are said to descend, or arise, into our physical realm.  For savages it is chiefly a nether world that sends up spooks; for more advanced cults it is from the heavens that supernatural beings, the embodiments of human ideas—of virtue, triumph, immortality—descend to the mundane realm.  But from this source emanates also a terrible world government, with heavy commands and sanctions.  Strange worship and horrible sacrifices may be the tithes exacted by the beings that embody our knowledge of nonanimalian human nature.

So the gift of symbolism, which is the gift of reason, is at the same time the seat of man’s peculiar weakness—the danger of lunacy.  Animals go mad with hydrophobia or head injuries, but purely mental aberrations are rare; beasts are not generally subject to insanity except through a confusion of signs, such as the experimentally produced “nervous breakdown” in rats.  It is man who hears voices and sees ghosts in the dark, feels irrational compulsions and holds fixed ideas.  All these phantasms are symbolic forms that have acquired a false factual status.  It has been truly said that everybody has some streak of insanity; i.e., the threat of madness is the price of reason.


Knowledge and Tyranny

 Because we can think of things potential as well as actual, we can be held in nonphysical bondage by laws and prohibitions and commands and by images of a governing power.  This makes men tyrants over their own kind.  Animals control each other’s actions by immediate threats, growls and snarls and passes; but when the bully is roving elsewhere, his former domain is free of him.  We control our inferiors by setting up symbols of our power, and the mere idea that words or images convey stands there to hold our fellows in subjection even when we cannot lay our hands on them.  There is no flag over the country where a wolf is king; he is king where he happens to prowl, so long as he is there.  But men, who can embody ideas and set them up to view, oppress each other by symbols of might.

The envisagements of good and evil, which make man a moral agent, make him also a conscript, a prisoner, and a slave.  His constant problem is to escape the tyrannies he has created.  Primitive societies are almost entirely tyrannical, symbol-bound, coercive organizations; civilized governments are so many conscious schemes to justify or else to disguise man’s inevitable bondage to law and conscience.


The Great Symbols

Slowly, through ages and centuries, we have evolved a picture of the world we live in; we have made a drama of the earth’s history and enhanced it with a backdrop of divinely ordered, star-filled space. And all this structure of infinity and eternity against which we watch the pageant of life and death, and all the moral melodrama itself, we have wrought by a gradual articulation of such vast ideas in symbols—symbols of good and evil, triumph and failure, birth and maturity and death.  Long before the beginning of any known history, people saw in the heavenly bodies, in the changes of day and night or of the seasons, and in great beasts, symbolic forms to express those ultimate concepts that are the very frame of human existence.  So gods, fates, the cohorts of good and evil were conceived.  Their myths were the first formulations of cosmic ideas. Gradually the figures and traditions of religion emerged; ritual, the overt expression of our mental attitudes, became more and more intimately bound to definite and elaborate concepts of the creative and destructive powers that seem to control our lives.

Such beings and stories and rites are sacred because they are the great symbols by which the human mind orients itself in the world.  To a creature that lives by reason, nothing is more terrible than what is formless and meaningless; one of our primary fears is fear of chaos.  And it is the fight against chaos that has produced our most profound and indispensable images –the myths of light and darkness, of creation and passion, the symbols of the altar flame, the daystar, and the cross.

For thousands of years people lived by the symbols that nature presented to them.  Close contact with earth and its seasons, intimate knowledge of stars and tides, made them feel the significance of natural phenomena and gave them a poetic, unquestioning sense of orientation. Generations of erudite and pious men elaborated the picture of the temporal and spiritual realms in which each individual was a pilgrim soul.

Then came the unprecedented change, the almost instantaneous leap of history from the immemorial tradition of the plow and the anvil to the new age of the machine, the factory, and the ticker tape.  Often in no more than the length of a lifetime the shift from handwork to mass production, and with it from poetry to science and from faith to nihilism, has taken place. The old nature symbols have become remote and have lost their meanings; in the clatter of gears and the confusion of gadgets that fill the new world, there will not be any obvious and rich and sacred meanings for centuries to come.  All the accumulated creeds and rites of men are suddenly in the melting pot. There is no fixed community, no dynasty, no family inheritance—only the one huge world of men, vast millions of men, still looking on each other in hostile amazement.

A sane, intelligent animal should have invented, in the course of ten thousand years or more, some sure and obvious way of accommodating indefinite numbers of its own kind on the face of a fairly spacious earth.  Modern civilization has achieved the highest triumphs of knowledge, skill, ingenuity, theory; yet all around its citadels, engulfing and demolishing them, rages the maddest war and confusion, inspired by symbols and slogans as riotous and irrational as anything the “vegetative” stage of savage phantasy could provide.  How shall we reconcile this primitive nightmare excitement with the achievements of our high, rational, scientific culture?

The answer is, I think, that we are no longer in possession of a definite, established culture; we live in a period between an exhausted age—the European civilization of the white race—and an age still unborn, of which we can say nothing as yet.  We do not know what races shall inherit the earth.  We do not know what even the next few centuries may bring.  But it is quite evident, I think, that we live in an age of transition, and that before many more generations have passed, mankind will make a new beginning and build itself a different world.  Whether it will be a “brave, new world,” or whether it will start all over with an unchronicled “state of nature” such as Thomas Hobbes described, wherein the individual’s life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” we simply cannot tell.  All we know is that every tradition, every institution, every tribe is gradually becoming uprooted and upset, and we are waiting in a sort of theatrical darkness between the acts.

Because we are at a new beginning, our imaginations tend to a wild, “vegetative” overgrowth.  The political upheavals of our time are marked, therefore, by a veritable devil dance of mystical ideologies, vaguely conceived, passionately declared, holding out fanatic hopes of mass redemption and mass beatitudes.  Governments vie with each other in proclaiming social plans, social aims, social enterprises, and demanding bloody sacrifices in the name of social achievements.

New conceptions are always clothed in an extravagant metaphorical form, for there is no language to express genuinely new ideas.  And in their pristine strength they imbue the symbols that express them with their own mystery and power and holiness.  It is impossible to disengage the welter of ideas embodied in a swastika, a secret sign, or a conjuring word from the physical presence of the symbol itself: hence the apparently nonsensical symbol worship and mysticism that go with new movements and visions.  This identification of symbolic form and half-articulate meaning is the essence of all mythmaking.  Of course the emotive value is incomprehensible to anyone who does not see such figments as expressive forms.  So an age of vigorous new conception and incomplete formulation always has a certain air of madness about it.  But it is really a fecund and exciting period in the life of reason.  Such is our present age.  Its apparent unreason is a tremendous unbalance and headiness of the human spirit, a conflict not only of selfish wills but of vast ideas in the metaphorical state of emergence.

The change from fixed community and ancient local custom to the mass of unpedigreed human specimens that actually constitutes the world in our industrial and commercial age has been too sudden for the mind of man to negotiate.  Some transitional form of life had to mediate between those extremes. And so the idol of nationality arose from the wreckage of tribal organization.  The concept of the national state is really the old tribe concept applied to millions of persons, unrelated different creatures gathered under the banner of a government.  Neither birth nor language nor even religion holds such masses together, but a mystic bond is postulated even where no actual bond of race, creed, or color may ever have existed.

At first glance it seems odd that the concept of nationality should reach its highest development just as all actual marks of national origins—language, dress, physiognomy, and religion—are becoming mixed and obliterated by our new mobility and cosmopolitan traffic.  But it is just the loss of these things that inspires this hungry seeking for something like the old egocentric pattern in the vast and formless brotherhood of the whole earth.  While mass production and universal communication clearly portend a culture of world citizenship, we cling desperately to our nationalism, a more and more attenuated version of the old clan civilization.  We fight passionate and horrible wars for the symbols of our nations, we make a virtue of self-glorification and exclusiveness and invent strange anthropologies to keep us at least theoretically set apart from other men.

Nationalism is a transition between an old and a new human order.  But even now we are not really fighting a war of nations: we are fighting a war of fictions, from which a new vision of the order of nature will someday emerge.  The future, just now, lies wide open—open and dark, like interstellar space; but in that emptiness there is room for new gods, new cultures, mysterious now and nameless as an unborn child.

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