Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Metaphysics of Symbolism - An Attempted Formulation

The following is something of a philosophical experiment: just a jotting-down of my thoughts on the metaphysics of the symbol. There are no citations, but the main direct influences are Thomas Aquinas, Charles DeKoninck, Rene Guenon, Jean Borella, and William Desmond (about whom I shall hopefully have something to write in the near future). Other powerful influences are, of course, Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists - especially Proclus, though heavily modified through Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas.  But this is no piece of history of philosophy; this is the pursuance of an idea which I have discovered in a vast tradition. These thoughts are not yet, perhaps, as orderly as they could be; there is no introduction or climatic series of conclusions - the conclusions are seen throughout. And above all - which is in fact my final purpose - there is not yet an application to religious ritual, theurgy, and the liturgy; although one will perhaps perceive certain suggestive hints. I will note also that this account offers some principles, not only for the metaphysics of symbols, but also for the metaphysics of tradition and "traditionalism." To be developed at a later date. 

Metaphysics of the Symbol

Metaphysics is the science of that which is most universal, and consequently most eternal. As such, it is the study of concrete things, an account of human experience – but an account which specifically refers that which is concrete, particular, and contingent, to its universal, eternal, and necessary Cause. The world even in its very contingency bespeaks that which is eternal and unchanging; it is a procession from, a participation of, and a progression towards, that which does not change. A man of metaphysical “sense” is attuned to the interplay between change and the changeless, contingency and necessity, becoming and being, the many and the one. He is attuned to the infinite which he can never know directly in its actuality – but he can infer its actuality indirectly from the infinite which he knows in potency. Every determination of what is universally possible is a contraction of meaning, a small and unstable symbol of the fullness of actuality that is the Infinite itself. Every determination, being so little in its determination, is yet radically indeterminate and uncertain in its being; yet in strains towards greater determinacy, it seeks to be more actual, to overcome its own indeterminacy; it seeks to exhaust, with all of its little strength of being, the scope of possibilities contained in the universal. It seeks, as it were, to universalize its own being; it seeks to be like God.

One observes in the cosmos an ordered hierarchy of beings, which, as one ascends it, approaches closer to the sublimity of God. This hierarchy is divided into corporeal and incorporeal being; and within the corporeal there is a progression and ascent – participation – towards the incorporeal. One observes further that the corporeal world, the world of matter, is also a world of motion and change; whereas the incorporeal world of spirit is a world of changelessness. Is there not motion, then, in the immaterial? There is something more than motion and change, there is activity unbounded by time and space; there is the simplicity of intellect. It is, perhaps, the archetype of motion. Creatures in their hierarchical orders are marked by specific kinds of operation or activity – operations which are more and more perfect the more divine they are, i.e. the more spiritual. Motion, which separates the interior from the exterior, indeed separates a thing from itself, is an imperfection of activity, rather than a condition of activity simply speaking. The perfect activity is fully interior; there is no separation of the actor from Himself, but complete immanence. It is this interiority which beings approach, as they ascend the hierarchy from matter to spirit. The more sublime is the grade of hierarchy, the more does its operation resemble that of eternity; the more does it seek and attain its self-determination – escaping from the uncertainty of indetermination.

Human operation is the first grade of operation in the order of hierarchical ascent that truly escapes from the indetermination of matter; for man is at the horizon between matter and spirit, he is the common limit between two vastly different worlds – which thus, though so different, are inextricably entwined. To be sure, man does not completely escape from indetermination, inasmuch as he is a material being; but in the works of intellect, man is capable of a degree of spirituality that is, in itself, free from the bonds of corporeality – though it necessarily relies on the body in an extrinsic way (for knowledge comes through the senses). The triumph over contingency is achieved, indeed, by the harnessing of matter itself for the uses of the spirit; the body is an instrument of the soul, its mode of expressing itself and being impressed upon by the intelligibility of the world. The indetermination of matter, though still inevitably a factor in human existence, is mitigated by a measure of determination bestowed by intellect. All the works of man bear the marks of intellectual determination. The distinctive mark and nobility of the works of man is not that they are the works of his hands, but that they are the works of intellect, which employs the hands as instrumental causes. (It is, indeed, always true that an effect is more perfectly accounted for by a cause of a higher order than by causes of a lower order; thus, for the most universal perspective, transcending even the species of man, what is most distinctive in all things is that they are the work of the divine intellect. We shall see this more below.) Art, literature, culture, politics, and the sciences themselves, all involve the manifestation of spiritual intelligibility in matter. The indeterminacy, and thus imperfection, of matter is rectified by the bestowal of determinate meaning and signification by the works of human art. Human activity is characterized by the search for intelligibility and determinacy in this way.

The composition of the human person in this way is characterized as a microcosmos. In man, one sees the balance of matter and spirit, contingency and necessity, played out in a most obvious way. But it is a condensed imitation of the interplay between the lower and the higher spheres of being that is at play at a much grander scale, in the work of the whole cosmos. As mentioned, the hierarchy of being is an ascending order towards the determinacy of the spirit – and indeed, towards the overdeterminacy of God at infinity. Facts in the universe of material beings may take place apparently at random; every creature is merely one possible determination among an infinity of possible determinations, and the stability of its being is uncertain. But each lower degree of determination is also, in progressively lesser ways, a contracted imitation of the many spheres of being that remain above it. Every creature and every species is measured by an essence of which it falls short, or which it approaches, in degrees of more-or-less. The essence of a fly is a falling short of the fullest and most intensive instantiation of the essence of animal, which is none other than man himself; but man as animal is necessarily a falling short of the most intensive, super-generic, and universal instantiation of life, which is found in the angels and finally in God.

There is an order among material species in themselves; but these species likewise exhibit, in their own distinctive modes, diverse grades and contractions of the pure perfections, which exist in their infinity and purity only in God. The four primary species of the corporeal world are segments of a continuum approaching spirituality, touching the latter at its common boundary with matter, in man. The species of animals, plants, and inorganic substances represent the grades of determination beneath man – underlying all of which is prime matter, which is pure indetermination. Each lower species is like an attempt to reach the spirit – an attempt to be man; a participation in intellect; but an attempt that also necessarily falls short. Inorganic matter falls so far short of the mark that it lacks interiority altogether; its “success” is constituted only by the fact that it exists, it is actual. Plant life has a slightly more considerable success; it at least has the interiority of life, a soul, an internal principle of self-motion. But it is nothing compared to the interiority of animal life, in which a true, though partial, interiority of sense consciousness is attained. But spirituality as such is finally attained only in the human species, whose proper operation is fully capable of intellectual self-reflection: an immanent operation, the interiority of spirit. All lesser beings are but participations in man.

But there is another grade of participation that transcends the impurity of material perfections. Every species is also a participation of certain perfections which are in themselves free of matter – unlike the proper perfection of man qua man, who includes matter in his definition. The pure perfections of being, life, and intellect are each participated in a trans-generic (i.e. analogous) way, by all created species, and in various degrees of intension and extension. All existing things participate properly in being, which thus extends itself properly – though with various intensities – to all things. But all things likewise participate in life, yet not all things properly so: inorganic beings do not properly have life, though they participate by approaching life in various ways, in their accidents; thus the extension of life is less universal than that of being. All the more so, all things participate in intellect, but not all things properly so – for intellect properly extends itself only to spiritual beings; whereas lesser corporeal beings participate only by approaching intellect in various ways, though falling short of it.

The difference between proper and improper participation in the pure perfections is determined by substantial forms: of which some are intellectual, some are not; some are living (i.e. souls), some are not. Yet all, in fact, are actual. Those which are intellectual, and those which are living, and those which are actual, participate in each of the triad of pure perfections properly, though not all with the same intensity. (For example, both man and angel are properly intellectual, but angel participates more intensively in intellect than man. Likewise, both hydrogen and man exist actually, but man participates more in being than hydrogen, and thus man is more truly a substance. Differences in intensity correspond to differences in determinacy.)

Nonetheless, those substances which do not properly participate in these pure perfections may nonetheless be seen to approach them in some manner, by a likeness that is accidental. It is important that accidental here in no way implies random or by chance, at least in the last analysis – the most universal perspectiveRather, it means extraneously to the substance itself, as such. But such accidents may or may not be rooted in the very nature of the substance. For example, the likeness of sensation to intellection is an accident of sensitive animals; but it is a likeness that is rooted in the very nature of sensation itself, as an element of the animal essence determined by substantial form. As has been said already, sensation is like an “attempt” to be intellect. Plant life, moreover, lacks both intellection and sensation; yet it is characterized by generation, which is like intellect: for the latter is the generation of an intelligible offspring, a concept. This likeness is accidental to vegetative reproduction, no doubt – but it is a likeness founded on the essential nature of vegetative life, according to the substantial form of a plant. But nor need those accidents which are not properly the consequence of essence be thought purely random or by chance – for always, chance is a consequence of the contingency of univocal causes, residing on the same grade of being as their effects, limited by the same indetermination. From the perspective of more universal causes of a higher order, there is no chance; every accident, whether it is an “essential accident” or non-essential, is like an “attempt” at approaching substantial form, even the multiple hierarchies of substantial forms. Physical locomotion – even where it does not proceed from an internal principle (a soul) – is a way of approaching and thus participating in the eternity of divine activity, which is the archetype of all meaning.

A whole doctrine of participation by accidental likenesses could be educed from these first observations. There is a general irreverence towards accidents that pervades much scholastic philosophical discourse; accidents are generally ignored as if they were unimportant and superfluous; whereas in fact accidents are an indispensable element of the universal hierarchy. Not only the four philosophical species, but all of their possible lesser determinations – infinitely many of which are “merely accidental” – exhibit more particular modes of receiving and instantiating the perfections, whether properly or improperly. One individual man participates in intellect differently than another, though both properly, i.e. according to their substantial form; whereas a serpent participates in intellect differently than a sparrow, though both improperly, i.e. accidentally; or the bees differently than the spider (the bee-hive and the spiders web follow differently the aesthetic laws of geometry). That which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver – and the modes of receivers are infinitely diverse.

Thus the order and hierarchy of the cosmos is a many-layered hierarchy, in which all “layers” are precontained in simple unity only in the divine essence. But as things approach the divine essence – that is, as one considers in ascending order each species in its hierarchical place – one observes that they approach simplicity. Being, life, and intellect are more and more united, the higher one ascends from matter through spirit to infinity; and more and more separated, the lower one descends from spirit towards the pure indetermination of matter. What beings of a higher order possess simply and unitedly is received in lesser beings in a diversified and multiplied way, according to the variously specific and individual modes of the receivers. That which is spiritual, and therefore timeless and changeless, is translated in matter and reflected in motion, in time and space. That which is infinite and excessive in its determinacy in God is scattered, dispersed, and unstable in lesser beings – but with an instability that nonetheless participates of divine stability. Participation describes the many layers of being, which are simultaneously like and unlike their principle; they reveal Him even as they necessarily conceal Him.

Accordingly, every individual species contains the cosmos within itself in various degrees of intensity, and in various proportions of pure and impure perfections. Man is at the horizon between spirit and matter; thus he is the only creature within the material cosmos who properly (though not with an equal or univocal intensity) participates in all three degrees of pure perfection: being, life, and intellect. He is the summit, moreover, of all the specific perfections of corporeal beings: in him are contained all the substantial perfections of the lower species. All modes of being are in some way contracted in him – the lesser modes in an elevated way, the higher modes in a limited way. (Consequently, one will have to maintain that higher spiritual beings, each identical to its species, are not microcosms, but entire universes in their own right, approaching the infinitely intensive mode of embracing all being that belongs only to God: the trans-cosmic and infinite universe of self-contained Being.) But beings lesser than man also exhibit, in an improper mode, the character of microcosm. An animal is a microcosm to the degree that it properly instantiates being and life, but imperfectly, since it does not properly instantiate intellect, but only approaches it. A plant is a yet more imperfect microcosm, because it falls even more short of intellect, having no sensation. But inorganic substances are the least of all actual beings, having neither life nor intellect, but only being. Prime matter is finally cosmic only inasmuch as it is pure potency for cosmic being – indeed, it is not even microcosmic: it is as it were infinitesimally cosmic.

The universal order is a hierarchy of presence and absence. Beings of a higher order, which more purely exemplify the pure and transcendent perfections, also exercise a causal power of progressively more universal intensity – and thus of a progressively greater intimacy to their effects. (Hence, the existence of secondary or instrumental causality in no way subtracts from the causality of primary and universal causes; quite the contrary, indeed.) The higher the being – the more perfectly does it participate in being, life, and intellect – the greater is the scope of its causality, and the more intimately does it operate within its effects. The divine universal Cause, the One, super-substantial Being, Life, and Intellect, operates within the entire scope of existing creatures with an infinite degree of intensity and intimacy. Lesser beings, such as the angels, are granted measure of causality, in both universality and intimacy, that is proportionate to their particular degrees of participation. Thus, in all visible effects, the ever more intimate activity of ever more universal causes can be seen by a metaphysically-attuned mind.

The symbolic capacity of beings is principally constituted by their community with beings and perfections of the higher orders – a community that is checked always by a degree of disunity and negation. Symbol and hyperbole are correlatives in this way: the symbolism of things is their togetherness with the sublimity of their archetypes; the hyperbolism of things is their apartness. In the symbol, qua symbol, the archetype is intimately present in, or immanent to, its particular instantiation; but in the hyperbole, qua hyperbole – which is numerically identical to the symbol – the archetype is infinitely beyond, or infinitely transcendent to it. Symbol and hyperbole are thus two facets of the analogy of being, which is in turn the basis of all sacred metaphor.

The faculty of metaphysical sense, so to speak, is in reality a certain attunement to the symbolic and hyperbolic “language” of the cosmos, which, though mixed with contingency, is far from arbitrary. To a man attuned to the orders and grades of being, who recognizes in the cosmos the paradigm of what he reflects microcosmically, even the particularity and contingency of material beings bespeaks the universality and necessity of super-cosmic, spiritual beings. Such a man is able to see the world not only as it is in itself, as a concatenation of merely particular causes and effects, but also in reference to its universal causes and archetypes, under whose influence he recognizes that all is not merely chance and randomness. To such a man, the likeness of plant life to the life of spirit is no chance “accident,” but a consequence of its very ontology – its inherent symbolism. The “accidental” relation of the heavenly bodies in motion of the spheres is not something utterly arbitrary and without meaning, but the symbol of a divine mode of life whose operation is eternal, simple, and indeed at rest. The rising of the sun every morning (and indeed, it is not senseless to speak of the sun rising instead of the earth revolving) is not utterly the happening of chance, but a feature of these realities which simultaneously bespeaks the coming of intelligible light, spiritual illumination, and new life; for the wakefulness prompted by the sunrise is like knowledge and life, whereas sleep is the sign of ignorance and death. Physical orientation is the sign of spiritual orientation or intentionality. Physical postures signify spiritual dispositions. The dimensions of space signify the procession of the quantitative to and from that which is without quantity, as lines, planes, and volumes proceed to and from a single and uncomposed point. The center and outer surface of a sphere symbolize the infinite intimacy and transcendence of God, whom all things approach at their uttermost limit. The height of the heavens signifies the superiority of spirit, and of God. The suppleness and formlessness of water signifies the universal Possibility contained in the Divine Essence, the possibility of all becoming; likewise prime matter itself would signify this, for even as mere potency it is still real and capable of at least this meaning. The cleanliness of water signifies, moreover, the absolute purity of being and life that belongs to the simplicity of spirit, fully exemplified in God.

No comments:

Post a Comment