Writer and philosopher Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) described man as a “symbol-making animal.” But symbolism, the practice of using one thing to represent another, effectively separates mankind from all other creatures. Philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) tried to eliminate excessive philosophic subtleties by urging his students to “get back to things themselves.” He was not joking, but still the joke was on him.
For many things require symbolic substitutions in order for us to manipulate them intellectually. Only by means of the symbolic language we call mathematics can we measure the mass and velocity of astral bodies. Otherwise, they are infinitely beyond our manual might to do so. Albert Einstein did not travel physically to outer space to describe the relationship between mass and velocity. Instead he summarized it mathematically in comfortable Switzerland in his famous formula E=MC2. On the other hand, mythological Atlas was condemned for his rebellion to bear the world physically on his shoulders. We easily understand the image as a symbol of the heavy burdens we humans must bear, but it would never occur to us to think of it as an actual situation.
Symbolism has become so much a part of human life that there is no way we could limit ourselves to actual things as the German thinker recommended. Language itself is perhaps the most basic of our symbolic substitutions. Instead of plucking an actual flower for a sweetheart — which we may also do — with poetic words we can create a symbolic flower and redouble its natural charms with verbal beauty. Before television began, audiences thrilled to dramas spoken by distant, unseen actors. And even with Hollywood’s advanced special effects today, it may still be easier and more effective to describe a disaster or love scene than to show them visually. Vision may stimulate the superbly gifted to creative heights, but for most of us it limits the imagination and its symbolizing power. We do not see beyond what our eyes have seen.
History shows the increasing substitution of symbols for actual objects. Nobel Prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958), captivated by the French idea of “pure poetry,” called for words themselves to replace real likenesses with their own internal coherence and esthetic beauty. Much of the same was true of modern art. For centuries, artists copied the real world of persons and objects. But in the 20th century to widespread consternation many abandoned real things and created an independent realm.
People of much earlier times were vastly more literal than most of us are today. In ancient times, statues and likenesses of divinities were not thought of as mere symbols or images, as we would understand them today but as literal incarnations of the gods and demons themselves that came to reside in the images This literality, which still lingers as superstitions and grist for Hollywood horror movies, may also explain the periodic iconic purges in Christianity and prohibitions in Judaism and Islam against artistic portrayals of the human face and form.