METAPHOR as WISDOM
Information is factual — this is this and that is that. Knowledge is categorical — this is this but not that. Wisdom is metaphorical — this is this and also that.
We live in the Information Age. Via the internet and many other means we can garner as many facts as we need for whatever purpose we decide. We might also call this the age of scientific knowledge. Science itself has many categories or sciences, and each science has many subcategories, all of which make knowledge easier to obtain and retain, However, metaphor has been pushed aside as being ‘inaccurate’ and ‘misleading’. It’s fine for poetry but ours has become a prosaic age. Once Joseph Campbell was interviewed on the radio by someone unfamiliar with the term ,so Joseph tried to explain its meaning. To say “he runs like a deer” is a simile, which the interviewer accepted as meaningful, but to say “he is a deer” the interviewer said would be meaningless and a lie. Or one could say it was a myth, today often used as a synonym for ‘a lie.’ So myths and metaphors are now considered by many as equivalent to lies. How then can one refer to them as ‘wisdom’? As Jung wrote:
Wisdom is neither a question of belief nor of knowledge, but of the agreement of our thinking with the primordial images of the unconscious.
My first lesson in the language of the unconscious came from a message from Poseidon while traveling with my friend David in Europe by auto. I was at that time learning how to deal with Hermes through active imagination when he told me one night that he had a message from Poseidon, which I assumed was from the depths of the unconscious since in Jungian terms that is what Poseidon represented. It was: “You must drive on the mainland, but among the islands it doesn’t matter.” I assumed it was meant literally, and therefore could not obey since that meant that I would have to insist on driving the whole time until we reached the Balearic Islands which we were not intending to visit for a couple of weeks, and David would think I was crazy since he had not yet heard of my dealings with Hermes. So we continued to share driving and shortly after we both got very ill, I in France and he in Spain. We decided to cut this trip short and go to the islands as soon as he got well. Until recently, I assume we were punished for my disobeying an instruction, but now I have come to the conclusion that the spirit does not punish, (and why punish David for something he wasn’t even aware of?) but I had simply failed to get the point (and what better way could the so-called unconscious have figured out a way to do it?); that is, that the unconscious communicates primarily through metaphor, and Hermes wanted me to learn his language, a fact which he explained later, in a most informative way. I consider Hermes as my daimon or spirit guide. If you prefer, consider him as a personification from the collective unconscious which many people today consider the ancient gods to be. In this way Jung has restored the ancient gods to a respectable position in our psychology so that one can accept the ancients and their gods as having a kind of reality. I have found this approach very useful. Therefore I found his explanation very informative and I shall give it to you now.
It came during an active imagination in which I asked him to explain to me why, as occasionally happens, I have asked for something and later received it in the form of a disaster. This had happened when I came out of the navy at the end of WWII. I asked for three things. I got them all, but two of them came as a result of what was to me a disaster — my father’s suicide. After meeting Hermes, I asked him about that. He responded by explaining to me that he knows my world only through my dreams (which apparently is where he lives, and we know that they are metaphorical) and also by what I tell him. Words are the only conscious means of communication with his world, as we assume when we pray. Therefore I must explain thoroughly whatever I want him to know or want to ask for. Any common knowledge between the conscious and the unconscious world is purely symbolic, hence his statement that he knows my world only through my dreams. I wonder, therefore,if that explains Coyote’s strange behavior when dealing with the world around him. The Trickster is teaching that the material world is merely a metaphor of the spirit. That the ‘mainland’ of Poseidon’s message is the everyday, ego-dominated world while the ‘islands’ were the world of intuition, dreams, contemplation, etc. My seeming punishment was not an attempt to trick me, but to teach me, and certainly David’s illness could not be punishment, but it did make him more susceptible to my explanation of how all this happened, and his willingness to accept did surprise me at the time. I have now come to view every so-called misfortune as well as good fortune in such a light, which makes it difficult for Hermes to teach me by placing obstacles in my path (apparently a major function of the daimon). which he demonstrated to me by his asking the question (this time out loud as if it were coming over the radio) “How can I bring you sorrow when you accept it as blessing? In other words, “How can I teach you by putting obstacles in your path if they only make you happy to be in communication with me? You are missing the point.” The point, I now realize, is that the spirit communicates with us primarily by metaphor, whether in words or events. This may be by means of obstacles, accidents, symptoms, and similar events. The spirit admits to not knowing our world, and so these metaphorical words and events are sometimes difficult to translate, thus they may be misinterpreted as punishments or rewards, although it is more likely that their purpose is instructional. It is important that we communicate with the spirit if we wish to know the meaning of our life. I later discovered that this is accepted wisdom in some traditions as when I found this expressed by the wisest of poets, Rumi.
I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes sweet, does it not?”
“You’ve caught me,” grief answered, “and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?”
One could say that the conscious self and the unconscious self are (another metaphor) two golden birds, intimate friends, dwelling in the same tree. While the former seeks the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree of life, the latter looks on in detachment.
It’s interesting that poetry uses metaphor freely, and that in ancient times spiritual truth was always expressed in poetry. In the Old Testament, historical events were described in prose, but Truth was expressed in poetical form, and was metaphorical in nature. This has created problems for the fundamentalists,who believe in literal interpretation of what were intended as metaphors. The same mistake I made on my trip in Europe. As implied in the title of this series of essays, Myth as Metaphor, poetry and myth are similar in that respect, and as you know, epic, an important form of myth, is poetry. On first reading Parzifal, I realized the similarity to my own dream of coming across a great wall and failing to wonder what was on the other side. Each time I then awakened, again went to sleep and dreamed the same thing. This happened three times in a row. Each time I awakened I wondered what was on the other side and could not understand why I hadn’t tried to find out. Upon reading Parzifal, I got the message of the dream. When he did not ask the meaning of the grail ritual which he was being shown, he was thrown out into life where he went through much suffering and had to find out the meaning himself. That is what life is for. And that is what myth is for. Discovering meanings. That is what Einstein meant when he said that in times of crisis, imagination is more important than knowledge. The perspective of each of us adds to the collective experience of the whole; our individual experiences and consciousness enrich the collective unconscious. Perhaps that is why we are here. If we do not ask the meaning, we must live through it. If we do ask, we may still have to live through the meaning, but at least we understand what is going on. It is nice to know when you are the statue and when you’re the pigeon.
Shadow is created when light strikes matter. Matter is created when light strikes shadow. Therefore we could say that dark matter is uncreated by not having been enlightened. Therefore the universe is a metaphor of the process of enlightenment. It comes into being as we discover it. as the light strikes the shadow. And this light is the flame called imagination which means ‘image-making, bringing an image to light.
Can we invent, compose, indeed create anything without imagining it first? The only reason they haven’t found evidence of intelligence elsewhere in the universe is because we haven’t yet found it on earth. We haven’t looked, since imagination is considered irrational, and metaphor requires imagination. In Greek, metaphor means ‘to carry over, or carry across.’ As Mary Greer, wrote in 21 Ways to Read a Tarot,
A metaphor is simply one thing representing something else; furthermore, it’s not just a comparison but also a shared identity. It serves as a transportation device transferring meaning from one domain to another and, in the process, triggering cultural and personal stories.
And arguing about the Spirit is arguing about metaphor, and to deny its existence demonstrates that one has not experienced it. And the longer that argument continues, the more difficult that experience is likely to be. As when a neighbor saw a strange man in his living room walking through a chair. We believe we know it all just because we have never experienced anything but what we know. And I am sure you realize that it is what you learn after you know it all that counts. And the truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.
A metaphor brings to light an image of something else. This usually requires, rather than the five senses, the Five Wits in order to decipher it. Since these are not considered rational, they have been forgotten today and replaced by the five senses which can be scientifically verified. These five wits can be defined as: (1) Common Wit, the ability to focus; (2) Imagination, essential for invention including modern technology, art, literature, etc.; (3) Fantasy, the ability to experience the unreal; (4) Estimation, the evaluative principle, related to Jungian feeling function; (5) Memory, as Plato said, all learning is impossible without memory — the ability to associate experience with memory is necessary for all learning.
Von Franz said that her introduction to metaphor was when she first met Jung who told her of a client of his who claimed she had been on the moon. Von Franz said that was nonsense; she couldn’t have been on the moon. Jung replied. “She was on the moon.” Von Franz insisted that that was impossible. Jung repeated, “She was on the moon.” Then von Franz woke up. How could one arrive at sense without realizing the truth of nonsense — of metaphor? This woman knew that she had been on the moon. Reality is what we perceive, not what someone tells us we should be perceiving.
You can see that this is not related in any specific way to the principle of reason, which became important only in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, often called the Age of Reason. That which was not related to Reason became irrational and so the Five Wits were soon replaced by the Five Senses. The sixth sense is a recent, more or less unrelated addition. A person who has all five wits about him/her is considered intelligent but not necessarily rational. In dealing with Unreason, one must stand under that which one desires to understand. If one uses reason, all one has to do is to pass judgment. which often leads to disagreements, wars, etc. Or one might suffer the fate of Pope Leo X who in the 16th century rationalized that all he had to do raise the money to build St. Peter’s in Rome was to change Christian dogma on Purgatory from what one finds in Dante where people may choose to go to Purgatory where they can work on their karma, the pope chose instead to make it incumbent on all but a few chosen ones to have their family buy them out of that miserable place by giving money to the Church. This way the Church was able to raise the money needed, although this action soon drove Luther up the wall and eventually destroyed the unity of the Church. This is what reason can do when money is involved. Interestingly, the pope paid for this in a spectacular metaphor as he later died from a ceiling falling on him. It must have seemed to him that the heavens were falling. It seems that there were higher powers that disapproved. After all, things don’t just happen. They happen just.
Metaphors are nonsense — they turn something into something else, even the impossible. As von Franz explained about her first meeting with Jung. Indeed, how could a therapist deal with a client if the therapist believes that the only reality is what one is expected to perceive? How can anyone communicate with anyone on that basis? Without metaphor we would have no poetry and therefore truth would be inaccessible. As you have already heard, the spirit speaks through metaphor. As Alice Howell wrote,
Everything in the natural and visible world is, when rightly perceived, an expression of an invisible reality whose pattern is made perceptible by the stars. The universe is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual force.
When she says “rightly perceived” she means “perceived metaphorically.” The ancients perceived the heavens as full of metaphors depicting myths containing truths for mankind. They knew that metaphor is essential when reaching for truth. It is the veil which prevents truth from blinding us. We can say today that, psychologically speaking, if a person feels shackled in one’s life, one could very well see Andromeda shackled to the rock expecting the approach of an unknown creature when one is looking at the sky. The heavens can certainly be perceived as metaphorical of what is real. An English astronomer, Bode, set forth what is now called Bode’s Law:
The mathematical proportion between planets from the sun to Saturn (including the asteroid belt) is that of the notes of a stringed instrument.
This goes back to Pythagoras, an ancient mathematician. who drew his knowledge from the ancient Egyptians, and Bode demonstrated that it is factual. The perspective of each of us adds to the collective experience of the whole; our individual experiences and consciousness enrich the collective unconscious. Only when we remain unconscious of our problems or refuse to deal with them are we forced to confront them in our outer lives as events. We often imagine that this is the work of the Trickster. Einstein himself said that in times of crisis, imagination is more important than knowledge. Thus we see what Jung saw in his time of crisis, that Unreason can be even more important than rationality. If one tries to use reason, one will likely simply pass judgment by blaming someone or something else, or one might suffer the fate of Pope Leo X.
It seems that even time is a metaphor. Everything is all the time. I discovered by experience that it is only because our aperture of awareness is so narrow that we experience things sequentially. Thus we see that time itself is but a result of the limitations on our perception. It is difficult even to express the truth that the world is a metaphor, although a few poets have succeeded in doing so. Ibn Arabi wrote:
Everything that we see is a shadow of what we don’t see. The world is the continuous shadow of God.
And Paul Elhuard, a surrealist poet, put it simply enough for us to stand under without the ceiling falling in on us when he wrote: “There is another world and this is it.”
Jung wrote that:
There are not many truths, there are only a few. Their meaning is too deep to grasp other than in symbols. An archetypal content expresses itself, first and foremost, in metaphors. Life does not come from events but from us. We create the meaning of events. We make it. It comes from our-selves. The meaning of events is not their particular meaning. Events have no meaning. Every judgment made by an individual is conditioned by his/her personality type and is therefore relative.
Our aperture of awareness was reduced even more by the rise of Rationalism in the 18th century. Unreason, or irrationality, came to be considered stupid or even dangerous. This is especially true in the US since our constitution was created during this period called the Enlightenment and is based on rationalism. That is why religion is purposely kept out of its purview, although unreason, being ignored, cannot be easily controlled and therefore war, magic, and religion can easily sneak up on it from behind. We can see this in the attack by Moslem fundamentalists who believe that we hate their religion even though we may be simply ignoring it as unworthy of our attention. Any set of beliefs is almost by definition a religion and therefore is irrational. so any single belief is irrational also. Even Voltaire, the founder of the rationalist school of philosophy, knew how powerful irrational religion can be, so he permitted a priest to administer extreme unction to him on his deathbed. The priest told him that he must reject Satan. Voltaire replied, “This is no time to be making enemies.” He doubtless knew that Satan was a metaphor for the evil aspect of the godhead, but he also knew that metaphor was a powerful instigator of action, whether desirable or not.
As I have stated previously, spirit usually speaks in metaphor, and almost invariably uses metaphor for the purpose of instruction. Those of you familiar with the Delphic Oracle can see almost nothing but metaphor in its instructions, which unfortunately allows many historians to ignore these records as mere nonsense. Academics as well as scientists are rarely skilled at dealing with metaphors, but the spirit deals in almost nothing else. What is even more difficult to accept is that the spirit deals in metaphor even when it speaks to us through our body. As von Franz wrote: “what we reject psychologically often becomes imprisoned in the body.” Symptoms, encounters, accidents, and even events occurring in our vicinity can be metaphorical messages from spirit through the body.. After all, many parents teach their children the existence of Santa Claus, even though we believe he is “just a metaphor.” But this metaphor serves a purpose during childhood, although few of us would ridicule a child who believes in the actual reality of Santa Claus. What we need to mature into is not one who believes in metaphor as fact, but retains the acceptance of metaphor as meaning. I remember as a child when I asked if Santa Claus existed, I was told that he was the spirit of giving. This enabled me to realize that one is not a fool who believes in him as fact, but has simply mistaken spirit for physical reality, no different from one who has seen a ghost.
You can see this also in dealing with our environment. You may have noticed that after a portion of a forest has been cut down leaving the ground bare, it sometimes happens that, to keep the soil from blowing away, rain comes and causes grass and other forms of plant life to grow, thus holding down the soil. Don’t you realize that there is a purpose behind this attempt to preserve the natural world? Metaphorically, one can see here a higher truth in which the grass is God’s handkerchief to absorb His tears which were shed in regret for the loss of the beautiful trees. You see, imagination can create a metaphorical reality which, just like the existence of Santa Claus, is also true when taken metaphorically.
The ancients also believed that truth lies in metaphor. That which they intended as truth was written as poetry, and that which was fact was written as prose. You can see this by looking at the Old Testament. The Egyptians had another form of writing for their commercial accounts and business affairs; hieroglyphics were used only for truth. Such distinction was retained at least until the time of Shakespeare, where we can see in his plays sections he wrote in prose which are of a different nature than what he wrote in verse. Metaphor is essential for understanding truth, although it is also a veil which prevents that truth from blinding us. It thereby permits us to experience our oneness with everything. Consider the human body which functions metaphor-cally as an occasional appendage of the Spirit-Self to be used as an indispensable instrument for increasing consciousness. I felt this to be the case when I realized through experience that our senses exist to limit our perceptions rather than permit them. Our body exists to permit us to experience the material world but at the same time to limit our experience of what Helen Luke would have called the ‘real world’ as she said:
This coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing, it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.
An example is the Greek stem of the word for ‘to hear’ AUR. (Latin, AUD) It was also the word for ‘breeze’, something you can feel and hear but can not see. It was also the word for ‘gold’. They knew that hearing is more important than seeing. It is a sense that occurs within us, sight is what we perceive without, separate from us, a different world. A metaphor.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. However, as Jean Cocteau said, “We must believe in luck, for how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?”
Can the truth be found in physics, or perhaps in philosophy? Let us find out where the truth lies.
And so we conclude that an electron is a particle.
But you also claim that an electron is a wave.
Yes, it’s also a wave.
But surely, not if it’s a particle.
We say it’s both a wave and particle.
But that’s a contradiction, obviously.
Are you saying that it’s neither wave nor particle?
No, I’m asking what you mean by ‘it.’
Does that mean, since a metaphor is both this and that, that a particle is a metaphor? Which of course would indicate that reality itself is metaphorical. We have here a knowledge crisis, since knowledge is categorical, this and not that. Our knowledge of what is real has come into question. And if we don’t know what is real then in what sense can we say that we have any knowledge at all? It has become impossible to define knowledge in a way which genuinely distinguishes it from mere belief. And we know that belief is what causes disagreement, wars, etc. Which leaves us in a crisis in ethics as well, for without knowledge of truth and reality, we possess no means to resolve the great moral questions that have plagued mankind. And this is where our state of ignorance tears at the fabric of society. We do not know what the world is, yet everyone has a belief as to what it must be, and science can be no help because it can not tell us. Science has never determined what a metaphor is, nor is it designed to deal with such questions. How can a particle be a metaphor? To be both this and that? Can a particle be a manifestation of a wave? Then what is a wave? Do not try to get an answer to that from a physicist, or even a philosopher. Perhaps it would be better to ask a daimon. As Steve Hagen wrote in How Can the World Be the Way it Is?
A thing is what it is. What could be more clear? Could there be a proposition more convincing? How could anyone doubt it? And could there be any greater absurdity than that a thing is what it is not? Yet things being what they are — which is just what common sense would have us believe — results in a world which makes so very little sense. For if things are what they are, then there could be no becoming and the world, contrary to experience, must be immutable, sterile, and devoid of consciousness.
One might conclude, therefore, that life itself is a metaphor. If there is no awareness of becoming, as Steve Hagen just pointed out, then how do we even know where we are going? We must assume that our “going,” that is, our becoming, is a metaphor for life. As you know, metaphor is from the Greek meaning “to carry across,” and thus implies taking from one category to another, and since knowledge requires categorical thinking, perhaps then metaphorical thinking denies the possibility of knowing anything at all. Knowledge can not possibly exist at all. We must simply assume that we are living. We cannot know it. We can not even know that the sun will rise tomorrow. Even science, our major source of knowledge, denies that the sun will rise, that sunrise is only an appearance. People thought they knew that sunrise happens every morning since time immemorial, but science has taught us that we cannot know anything unless science can demonstrate it. But metaphorical thinking denies even that. Metaphor is concerned only with meaning. What does sunrise mean? We know it exists, even despite science. But what does it mean metaphorically? That meaning has existed since time immemorial, and we all have a sense of that meaning (the word sense is also a metaphor in this statement).
One of the most inclusive metaphors in our language is the labyrinth. Its most important meaning is life itself. Everyone is potentially an Odysseus on a path to the center, to Ithaca. A chance to become a new Odysseus is given to everyone because each of us has been condemned (or chosen) by the gods to follow a path of realization, of penetrating the hidden meaning of our wanderings, and of understanding them as a long series of initiation trials, willed by the gods, as so many obstacles on the path which brings us to the hearth, the center. That means seeing signs, hidden meanings, the depressions, the dry periods in everyday life as metaphors whose meanings need to be examined. But until we arrive at the metaphorical hearth, this labyrinth seems to be a maze leading nowhere. it becomes a labyrinth only when we realize that this path has been chosen for us. The labyrinth is a defense, sometimes a magical defense, built to guard a center, a treasure, a meaning. Entering it can be a rite of initiation, as we see in the Theseus myth. That symbolism is a model of all existence which passes through many ordeals in order to journey toward its own center, toward the Self. So you must realize that life is not made up of just one labyrinth. The trial, the ordeal, recurs. Once the center has been reached, our consciousness is broadened and deepened, so that, if given proper attention, many things become clear and meaningful; but life goes on: another labyrinth, other encounters, other kinds of trials, only generally on another level leading to another center, another set of metaphors. Thus human life itself seems to consist of a set of metaphors. At birth, we move gradually through a kind of labyrinth and come out into a world of dimensionality in which our perceptions are limited to what is material in our environment and nothing else at all. And we wonder why children weep when they are born. Such behavior must be nostalgia, At least the Greeks thought so, since ‘nostalgia’ comes from Greek nostos and algos which together mean the pain or sorrow associated with the desire to go back home. Perhaps the infant fears that from that point on it will be limited to the necessity of following a passageway as defined as is a labyrinth where one can only perceive that which is in the immediate surroundings with a very limited knowledge of what is past and nothing definite about the future. And we wonder why some people are sad. Is the labyrinth truly a vale of limitations? However, there is one blessing to make up for this. We are provided a gift which breaks through those limitations, although we are carefully taught as soon as we leave childhood that we must not use it. That is imagination. Only artists and writers are permitted to use imagination and they are generally very poorly paid. Imagination requires ability to deal with metaphor. Without imagination metaphor would be incomprehensible. I am certain that most of you have noticed how scarce imagination is within the Beltway. but we can not go into that here.
Now that we all know what a metaphor is, what’s a meta for?
In order to answer that question, we must re-enter the same labyrinth whose center we have just reached. Science requires proofs, religion requires faith, and philosophy requires discrimination. Mythology lays the foundation for all three. This is possible because mythology consists of significant stories that have been developed and redeveloped by many members of the human race. Not only that, but also listened to with rapt, participating attention in every corner of human space-time. Storytellers speak from imagination, storylisteners hear with imagination. However, even though myth is freighted with memory, insight, and wisdom, it is filled with insoluble mysteries. When you return a caged wild animal to the wilderness it will have much to learn and to suffer. The same is true here. Like quantum physics, mythology also has many irrational elements. Its goal is also to arrive at a ‘unified field,’ in this case by creating the broadest possible basis of knowledge and sympathy, plus an abiding hunger for significance, within ourselves.
Before the Enlightenment which occurred in the 18th century, reason was not the path to truth that it has been considered since our Constitution was written, which is definitely a product of the Enlightenment, and would have been considered meaningless 200 years earlier. To quote The Enchanted Glass by Hardin Craig, a book about the way people thought in Renaissance England.
The road to truth was ratiocination, not the free use of reason, but reason was restricted to the discovery or rediscovery of a universe whose form and purpose were already known and whose laws were the legacies of a wiser past or the fiats of an unimpeachable God. Consultation of authority and the correct employment of logic, not the examination of phenomena, were the means by which truth became known.
There was a disposition to believe in the possibility, especially if a happy one, that mutually contradictory facts and principles might be true and valid. Reason could be disregarded. As Montaigne wrote:
We have indeed strangely overrated this precious reason we so much glory in. this faculty of knowing and judging, if we have bought it at the price of that infinite number of passions to which we are continually a prey.
During the Renaissance, man was conceived of as a microcosm fashioned in the pattern of the macrocosm. Since God was the head of the universe, it followed that the father should be the head of the family, and so on. This was a heritage of the Middle Ages. It emphasizes the metaphorical aspect of mankind’s position in the world. The greatest metaphor of all at this time was the great Chain of Being, stretching from the foot of God’s throne to the meanest of inanimate objects. Every speck of creation was a link. Every creature was inferior or superior to every other creature in virtue, which was reflected in social degree as opposed to modern democracy. But it dealt with much more. The lowest class is mere existence, the inanimate class: the elements, liquids and metals, but within this class there is a difference of virtue; water is nobler than earth, etc. Next is existence, life and feeling. the sensitive class. There are three grades here, roughly dividing higher and lower animals. Then comes mankind, having not only existence, life, and feeling in common with the lower animals, but understanding in common with the angels, but to a lesser degree. Thus we share faculties with lower and higher brackets. The angels are as precisely ordered along the chain as the other classes. The chain is also a ladder. There is a progression in the way elements nourish plants, the fruit of plants nourish beasts, and the flesh of beasts nourish us. There is also a primacy in every class; the lion or elephant among beasts, eagle among birds, emperor among men, sun among stars, fire among elements, justice among virtues, etc. All creatures excel in something. This fact accounts for Elizabethan love of metaphor. Plants in growth, stones in durability, beasts in being content in their condition, eating what is good for them, getting the proper amount of sleep, and keeping to their ‘proper seasons’ of courtship. Mankind excels in having two souls, mortal and immortal. This was a Platonic doctrine enlarged upon by medieval philosophers and was important during the Renaissance. The immortal soul was placed in the head, and the neck was the isthmus separating it from the mortal nature so it would become as little contaminated as possible. Thus a person with a long neck was more ‘spiritual’ than a short-necked person. The superior, though mortal, virtues were governed by the heart, and the desires were in the lower regions governed by the liver. The chain could not be single as the elements composed all living things as well, and therefore had to comprise a supple-mentary chain connected to the main one.
The theory of the elements was based on the notion of hot and cold, dry and moist. They were thought of through their effects. Heaviest and lowest was the cold and dry earth, the center of the universe, despite Copernicus. It was the dregs of the universe. Outside earth was the cold and moist water. Outside that was the hot and moist air. Air, though nobler than water, could not be compared with ether for purity. Humans breathe air, but angels ether. Air is foul in the sublunar regions (becoming true in a non-metaphorical sense today.) Above the moon the elements are mixed perfectly(no smog there). That is why only in the sublunar regions do things die. The more perfectly are elements mixed, the longer lived the creature, therefore we live longer than animals. And that is why, light and dark being perfectly mixed on the moon, it is where the opposites come together. Perfection exists only above the moon. The moon in its fulness contains all the opposites within it. It is the mediating force of such polarities as being vs. non-being, light vs. dark, good vs. bad, and transcendent vs. manifest world. That which is below changes, that which is above does not change, except the planetes (Gk for wanderers) whose paths wander among the stars but are actually fixed. Darkness flees from the sun as its opposite, but in the moon light and dark interact. This understanding still exists in non-scientific societies, and existed in the West before the Enlightenment. Many still say that the dark needs the light in order to become articulate. Now you know why I say that the moon is more important than the sun. It actually gives light at night when you need it. But the noblest of all the elements is fire, hot and dry, rarefied, the fitting transition to the realm of the planets, the most rapid and complete instrument of transformation available to mankind, the gift of Prometheus who suffered much for his generosity to mankind.
The elements are constantly at war with one another. Fire and water are opposed, but God put air between them which, having one quality of both, acts as transition and keeps the peace. Mankind bridges the greatest cosmic chasm, that between matter and spirit. We contain within ourselves samples of all degrees of creation, excelling in this even the angels, who are entirely spiritual beings. Our food is composed of the four elements. We contain samples of the four elements in the form of humours. These are referred to throughout Shakespeare’s works, for example. One humour was usually prominent in each person giving that person’s character its distinctive mark. The Renaissance period was rich in metaphor. As Alice Howell wrote:
Everything in the natural and visible world is, when rightly perceived, an expression of an invisible reality whose pattern is made possible by the stars. The universe is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual force.
The stars, both in Medieval and Renaissance times, through obeying God’s changeless order, were responsible for the vagaries of fortune in the sublunar regions. They dictated the general mutability of things and fortune was that part of this applying to mankind alone. It was the fall of man that was primarily responsible for the tyranny of fortune, so man could not shift blame but bear the punishment as best he could. It was God, Who, prompted by the Fall, set the celestial bodies against each other in their influence on the sublunar universe, but He also tempered their opposition to preserve a balance of power. Thus the contrary notions of the heavens imply balance and ‘mild Venus’ checks ‘fell Mars.’ Degree is thus preserved. But a strong-willed person may overcome fate, so there is nothing of predestination here. However, the stars have absolute sway over plants, beasts, and those of weak will who lack understanding and intelligence, and are therefore practically beasts. The paramount subject of understanding goes back to Greece. To know oneself. The angels already do, the beasts obviously can’t, and not to know oneself is to resemble the beasts. This is not egotism but the gateway to virtue. The Renaissance delighted in exposing the contrarieties in our nature, by picturing us between the beasts and the angels as we see in Shakespeare where mankind is shown in being in action like an angel and in apprehension like a god, and yet capable of all baseness.
As you can see, astrology was very important, as this was the approach by which mankind viewed the stars. Indeed, white magic was used to read the riddles of the universe but was never generally accepted because it lay under suspicion on account of its black brother. At this time the distinction between the material and the spiritual was largely a distinction between the perceptible and the imperceptible. One effect of this thinking was to make the unseen and the imperceptible a real thing (as we see in science again today) so that the supernatural seemed ready at any time to pass over the margin and assume perceptible form. Spirits were believed to be finite and always in a definite place, living in time and space. This cosmological structure is not to be thought of, in spite of its limitations, as being fiction or superstition. It was perhaps science in its infancy. or a kind of traditional knowledge, expressible today in metaphor. It was mostly an instrument of thought as a means of understanding life. It was a a child of mankind’s needs and as such fulfilled its chief purpose, fading away today into poetry, another approach to truth. Indeed. I can provide you with evidence that metaphor is just what truth is!
It seems that healers in primitive tribes use metaphor to hide the truth. There are several words like ‘water’ which they substitute another word for, so that non-healers will not know what they are saying. On examination, it has been found that healers in the South Pacific use the same set of words and meanings as healers among the Berbers in Morocco! This is like what Jung discovered when he made a thorough study of alchemy. It was meant to be misunderstood by those who would misuse the knowledge. And it has been, consistently. ever since then, just as fundamentalists misunderstand the metaphors in Scripture and think they are historical events. The idea that alchemy enabled one to turn base metals into gold derived from the fact that these metals were metaphors of spiritual ideals which the alchemist was trying to reach. It apparently goes back to to the myth that the Great Goddess whose son (the God who created the universe) created an imperfect world because He (a mere child) needed a plaything but made a mess of it. The Goddess tried to straighten things out and got Herself caught and can’t get out. The alchemist tries to achieve his own salvation by extracting Her from the base metals in which she is caught and when they find and extract gold they know they have had a success. They rarely got gold, of course, but the attempt brought them closer to salvation. Each of these base metals stands for something which they are trying to overcome.
The strange thing about this is that the use of metaphors can sometimes demonstrate the validity of these crazy beliefs. But you won’t read about examples of this in the newspapers, or even history textbooks, as few people seem to understand just what a metaphor is. A historian describing these examples would be exorcized. I was thinking of a situation in the Hundred Years’ War in the late 14th century when England had invaded France and brought it almost to its knees when Charles VI of France could not raise an army because he had no money for mercenaries and his aristocracy feared that if they continued to support France they would lose their lands, so they were beginning to side with England. Joan of Arc came along and told Charles that if he could supply her with an army, she could defeat the English. He of course could not easily believe her but he had no choice. But where could he get the money to raise an army? At that time, even the wealthiest merchants were practically starving since trade was highly irregular with all these thieving armies running around. the countryside, but there was one merchant who said he could help. (I actually saw his house in France. It was still standing.) He happened to be not only a merchant but an alchemist. He was able to provide Charles with an army large enough for Joan of Arc to defeat the English and kick them out of Orleans where they had embedded themselves. His money could not have come from trade, since that had almost come to a stop. Can you imagine how that affected English morale to be defeated by a woman? You can see why they got the Church to kill her at the first opportunity. This Battle of Orleans was the turning point of the Hundred Years’ War and soon the English were forced out of France (except for Calais, just across the English Channel from England). All because of a metaphor!
We must remember that today we live in an age of technology, which has the knack of arranging the world so that we don’t have to experience it, and experience, after all, is necessary in order to develop maturity. It is actually why we are here. Technology also has the disadvantage of giving people delusions of adequacy. I am encouraged to believe that if I acquire all the latest digital equipment, I shall be able to enjoy the 21st century to the fullest, but I suspect that I should then only want to be what I was when I wanted to be what I am now, but it will then be too late. I would have completely succumbed to a rational world. After all, a book is a greater friend than any computer. As Will Durant wrote, “A book is a friend that will do what no friend does — be silent when we wish to think.” And, as the goddess told Parmenides: “If you think it, it is.” Ask any inventor. Only time separates the thinking from the being. And time doesn’t exist on its own, but only because we think it does. But that’s another question.