Saturday, 20 January 2018

Metaphysics of Symbolism


I have been revisiting some of the writings of Jean Borella on religious symbolism, after almost a year since using his work in my B.A. thesis. I am finding that, already, after that year of studying metaphysics more intensely, I am now much more well-equipped to understand the Perennialist/Traditionalist school of thought when it comes to symbolism. This school of thought was dominated by non-Catholic thinkers who nonetheless knew well the depths of the perennial philosophical tradition and its orientation towards religion. This knowledge allowed them to be able to perceive across all ancient religions a commonality of symbolic forms: all religions employ certain fundamental symbols universally, with the purpose of a distinct kind of meaning, but also suited to the different characters of each religion. This was connected to a central doctrine, expressed most eloquently by Frithjof Schuon, concerning the transcendental unity of all religions: all individual religions, if they are genuine, are but various legitimate expressions of an underlying universal religion, so to speak; for the divine is capable of a multiple range of expressions. This was a rigorously metaphysical form of indifferentism - heretical from a Catholic standpoint, of course, but more understandable than the modernist sentimentality that lies behind most conceptions of "religious tolerance." Nonetheless, Jean Borella was one Perennialist who was, in addition, a faithful Catholic; and accordingly he would have none of the indifferentism of the "traditional" Traditionalists. While Borella's metaphysics draws heavily from the Traditionalism of Schuon and Guenon, it is also completely transformed in the Christian context by the fact of the Incarnation: not merely one manifestation of the divine among others, but literally its incarnation, a hypostatic identity of God and man. 

In any case, the Traditionalist (not to be confused simply with "traditional Catholicism," although there is some interesting and important overlap) metaphysics of religious symbolism is a unique expression of a doctrine received from Plato and Neoplatonism, and filtered through a variety of cultural conceptual frameworks, in various religions and philosophies both East and West. Though Borella does not adhere to the doctrine of transcendental unity, he is not afraid to draw terminology and conceptual aid from Islam and Hinduism and other religions. But he is staunchly Catholic in his application of these concepts. And moreover, the most authoritative source of his doctrine might be identified as the Christian Neoplatonic tradition. E.g., Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. The version of Platonism to which Borella adheres posits a hierarchy of being, in which the lower levels of beings participate in, and thus bear within themselves an inherent signitive reference to, the higher levels of beings, in ascending order. Indeed, lower beings on this hierarchical scale are what they are only in virtue of those higher beings from which they proceed - and thus, in a sense, their signitive constitution is in a certain way prior to their self-contained, self-referential substantiality.

Already, in that account, there is a tension between participation and substantiality - the age-old tension defining the relationship between Platonism and Aristotelianism in the perennial tradition. Is the signitive function of beings prior to substance? But is anything prior to substance - is not substance the underlying and first of all the categories? This is a very intricate question, which I will hopefully address elsewhere, but I think a Neoplatonist - like Jean Borella - could only respond that the signitive function of beings is not itself an accident, but is constitutive of the very substance of things. Thus, while among the ten Aristotelian categories, substance is indeed necessarily first and foremost (and thus it is what unifies being as an equivocal concept divisible into the categories), nonetheless all the categories, and substance included, bear a reference to something which is transcendentally prior: simply the fact of procession from higher and more universal principles. Essentially, this was Syrianus' approach to extending the pros hen relationship beyond the sphere of the categories to what is transcendent: the principles, exemplars, or archetypes of all things. Arguably, this is even implicit in Aristotle's own metaphysical framework, so that even there one might find possible foundations for something very much like a refined Platonic doctrine of Forms. Aristotle did not develop such a doctrine himself in any explicit way; perhaps he was not aware of the implications of his own principles, and the possibilities within his own system? Who knows.

In any case, the Neoplatonic re-application of the pros hen is in effect an acknowledgement that things have meaning beyond themselves; they by their natures refer to, because they exist only by participation in, certain transcendent and intelligible causes. For the later Neoplatonists, after Porphyry, this was the basis for the possibility of a whole set of religious practices called theurgy. The sensible world of experience was acknowledged as a means of communication with the gods - because it came from them in the first place. The cosmos was inherently sacramental. The practice of theurgic ritual was nothing other than a way of harnessing the sacramentality of the sensible world in order to ascend by means of it to the realm of pure intelligibility. Neoplatonic theurgy was, in a very real sense, a primitive instance of liturgical worship aimed at noetic deification - not by way of ratiocination, but simply by way of contemplation.

One must, of course, be careful lest one attribute real salvific power to pagan ritualistic practices; without grace, such practices will necessarily fall short of the true supernatural end of man; and moreover they will almost inevitably fall into manners of practice that are, perhaps, demonic. Hence Augustine's rigorous denunciation of pagan theurgy, in the City of God. Nonetheless, there is a properly philosophical basis for the practice of natural religion which would, I think, take the form of Neoplatonic metaphysics in theory, and something similar to Neoplatonic theurgy in practice. In a certain sense, nature does desire, or at least tend towards, what is beyond itself; what is finite does approach, though it cannot attain, the infinite, which is thus a remote final cause of nature itself. Thus an authentic metaphysics of liturgical symbolism cannot fail, I think, to take account of the metaphysical and theurgical philosophy of the Neoplatonists. And indeed, I think the philosophical component of the Christian tradition would not have taken the shape it did without having its roots, not only in Aristotle, but also in the Platonism of Plotinus, Iamblichus, Syrianus, and Proclus. The merit of the Perennialist/Traditionalist school of thought is that they sought precisely to recover this philosophical tradition; though many of them, like the Neoplatonists, also lacked the Christian faith - except for Jean Borella. Moreover, the metaphyisics Dionysius, and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a proof of the possibility of a synthesis and reception of this philosophical tradition.

One of my long-term projects is to formulate a metaphysics of religious symbolism - especially for the purpose of re-educating the faithful in the traditional rites of the sacred liturgy. Liturgical participation cannot be achieved without attention to its symbolic meaning, since as the Christian theurgy it is quite essentially symbolic in its ritual apparatus. One of the definitive marks of the twentieth-century liturgical reforms was the near total abolition of symbolism - or at least, a disastrous indiscrimination in the attention that was given to liturgical symbols. The new rites are strikingly un-symbolic - or they employ all the wrong sorts of symbolism. As such they were a concession to the radically un-symbolic mindset of modernism, which abolishes all bridges between immanence and transcendence, between experience and what is beyond experience, between this world and the next. Modernism destroys the possibility of seeing meaning in and through things; there is no mediation between the divine and the mundane. There is no interpenetration of contingency with the necessity of divine being, no presence in the finite of that which reflects the Infinite. There is no hierarchy of beings, only a flat and horizontal plane of beings. There is no sense of the symbol - and no sense of the sacred. These are the erroneous sentiments that must be overcome if the liturgy is to be restored to its former glory, and the faithful to their former religious virtue. And they are primarily metaphysical sentiments, and thus metaphysical errors. It is thus with metaphysics, the root of all philosophy, that a recovery of the philosophic mindset of the religious man must be undertaken.

This is almost the entire goal of all my philosophical endeavors.

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