Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Significance of Symbols

Humans are seemingly rational creatures - their employment of reason and language distinguishes them from all others. There are, however, things humans do that confound explanation of their rationality. For me, one of those things has always been man's deep affection for symbols and emblems. Emerson writes,
The inwardness, and mystery, of this attachment, drive men of every class to the use of emblems. The schools of poets, and philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See the huge wooden ball rolled by successive ardent crowds from Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe, and Salem in a ship.’ Witness the cider-barrel, the log-cabin, the hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances of party. See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
Why are individuals so attached to seemingly insignificant objects? I find such an attachment similar to humanity's incessant religiosity, and indicative of the possibility that man is not nearly as rational as we might want to believe. We must know that a lucky pen does not actually provide luck, and yet if we are taking a test we just have to use that pen. Likewise with religion - even the most ardent Christian, Jewish or Muslim believers will acknowledge that their religion does not satisfy tests of logic - that it requires a so-called "leap of faith." Indeed, religion necessarily abandons logic, the very foundation of man's rationality. So why do humans believe, oftentimes fervently, in religion?

Man possesses the capacity for rationality, but he is governed by powers far more influential - his passions. Thomas Hobbes wrote that man's fear - his passion of aversion- outweighs not only all other passions, but also his rationality. What is religion but a comfort blanket, designed to protect the insecure from the dangers of the unknown? Like a father who refuses to admit to his family that he is lost, so is man in his understanding of the universe. The father's insistence that he knows where he is going is tantamount to religion's assertion of absolute truth.

It is not surprising, then, that religions employ extensive use of symbols - indeed, the two provide the same thing - assuagement of man's passion of aversion.