In a previous post, “How does Ritual Teach?” we discussed Freemasonry in terms of symbols and allegory, and we talked about symbols as representing principles and ideals.
Did you ever stop to wonder though, why symbols are used, and why they even exist in the first place? What purpose do they serve?
What’s a Symbol?
In short, it is any mark, sign, or word that is understood as representing an idea, object, or a relationship. That’s a technical way of looking at it, but more simply: symbols are simple things that stand for complex ideas.
People need to allocate their time across a day, and meet many conflicting demands in a kind of balance. That’s a big, heavy complicated idea. The symbol on the left (the 24-inch gauge) isn’t a folding piece of wood, it is a “conceptual handle” that you can use to grab that complicated idea. Every time we try to describe the idea, we do it slightly differently. The 24-inch gauge stands as a simple replacement that stays consistent.
Complicated ideas are like big bulky loads, hard to pick up. Symbols are like handles, providing an easy way to grab an idea and put it to use.
Internal States & Percepts
To understand where symbols come from, we need to see that there is a difference between our internal mental states and the raw information we perceive (percepts). Think of the eyes and ears as scientific instruments that take in data and deliver percepts to the consciousness. What your self does with that information, and what you make of it is your internal state.
What’s the difference? Well, the eyes see a set of shapes & colors in a physical space in front of you, and your brain tells you that it’s a 24-inch gauge lying on the table, and might even tell you that you’ve been working too hard lately. If your instruments (the eyes) aren’t working, you might incorrectly perceive it, and have an internal state that is something different!
These internal states are called qualia and they are notoriously tricky and slippery. We can agree on percepts (whether a shirt is red or not, for example). But the qualia? Well, philosophers, psychotherapists, and occultists spend their entire lives exploring those and wrestling with a basic inability to express those fully. They’ll never fully succeed to communicate qualia fully & accurately, and next we’ll look at why.
Symbols are Simple Percepts
Have you ever noticed how most symbols are concrete physical things? A working tool, an animal, or a flag. Symbols must be percepts, because things we can agree on with our senses are the way human beings communicate with one another. Telepathy doesn’t look real, so if we want to exchange ideas / concepts / qualia, we have to speak, and make the air vibrate in a way that your ears can pick up, or otherwise make visual marks that your eyes can see. Either way, we create percepts for one another, and this is a reliable way to communicate because it’s all we really agree on.
Even when a symbol isn’t a concrete physical object, it’s still a physical percept. For example a word or color (that is seen), a sound (that is heard). All symbols are percepts, because it’s the only way for a human to get information into another human.
Non-percepts aren’t symbols. “The feeling of joy” isn’t a symbol. Actual wisdom isn’t a symbol. These are abstracts, non-percepts. A picture of an owl could be symbol for wisdom though. A picture of a kid in a playground could be a symbol for joy. Both percepts, approximating the thing itself, but not the thing itself.
Approximating is the important point. We can approach or approximate qualia with symbols, but we can’t re-create qualia with symbols; in other words, the map is not the territory.
My favorite example of this in Masonry is the most abstract idea I can imagine, symbolized by a simple percept: “Masonic Light”. Who among Freemasons believes that we’re literally talking about light from a bulb, or from the sun? Light is something everyone can see, but what we’re actually talking about has nothing to do with visible radiation!
A very interesting question to explore is what the image of “light” does to your understanding of the thing behind it. What really is Masonic light? Spoiler alert: you can answer this question for yourself, but you probably won’t be able to communicate your answer in a way that many other people can understand. That’s why we have the symbol, as a short-hand.
Symbols Bridge a Translation Gap
Suppose you have a lot of qualia that you want to communicate to another person. You want them to be able to create in themselves a kind of wisdom that you have found. How would you do that?
Basically – you can’t. The best that you can do is to communicate with them in terms of physical percepts (pictures, words, sounds, gestures). Those percepts aren’t the same thing as what you’re trying to communicate, but they’re the closest thing you’ve got.
So what would you do? You would probably invent a set of symbols using all of those tricks (pictures, words, sounds, gestures) trying as best as possible to approximate the qualia you’re going for. And so Freemasonry has symbols everywhere, from simple in presentation (perfect ashlar) to quite complex (sword pointing at a naked heart). Some symbols are fairly literal and direct like the hourglass (it doesn’t take a genius to realize that’s about passage of time) while others are much more indirect and veiled (like the pot of incense).
Freemasonry didn’t invent symbols; many are as old as human consciousness. And all other wisdom traditions and esoteric schools use the same communication methods, out of the same necessities: expressing qualia through the limitations of the physical human.
To make a large collection of such symbols make sense and hang together, it’s helpful to have a conceptual framework: this is where story, and allegory come in. Freemasonry is built around a wider story of King Solomon’s Temple, and the craft of building. This story provides coherence to an entire system of symbols, and because it’s a story – gives them an arc & trajectory: it’s about building & self-improvement, the tools don’t simply lie on the table looking pretty.