The Great Conversation:
Sign & Symbol—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

We now turn from signs in general to that special class of signs we call symbols.

Go here for Part I, on “non-symbolic” signs.

Symbols are signs whose meaning is not merely conventional, but comes from a genuine resemblance to, or relationship with, the thing it signifies. (Not all semioticians use symbol this way, but it will suit our purposes.) Emoji and onomatopoeias are good examples of symbols: the latter are words expressly designed to sound like their meaning, while emoji look like the sentiment they are supposed to express. Of course, neither an onomatopoeia nor an emoji is identical to what it signifies. Both are a bit stylized, and indeed, a person whose face looked just like an emoji (circular, yellow, no features but eyes and a mouth) would be a little alarming! But the connection between these symbols and their meanings remains obvious.

This may prompt a question: what about the opposite extreme? Sometimes both a symbol and what it symbolizes feel pregnant with meaning, but the meaning is not articulated (and may be impossible to articulate). Mysterious symbols seem especially apt to show up in abstract art, rituals and superstitions, and dreams—and, of course, in literature.

Take Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death. What does it mean? In one sense, that is easy to answer: it is about the inevitability of death. The symbols it uses to serve that meaning are clear, such as the furnishings of the seventh room in Prince Prospero’s suite (black hangings, as if for a funeral; red glass in the windows, resembling blood; a huge clock, reminding viewers that time passes), or indeed the plague of the title and setting. If we like, we can enrich our reading further by looking to the allusions Poe makes to other literature. The story’s setup is very like The Decameron, which was composed during an outbreak of the Black Death; the name Prospero suggests Shakespeare’s sorcerer, who specialized in illusions and whose famous speeches dwell on the transience and fragility of man. If anything, The Masque of the Red Death has not just a clear æsop, but one of the most heavy-handed in literature. And yet, while this may please us, it does not sate us. We go back and back to the story, we revel in the humbling of it revelers; we sense that we have not exhausted what it has to offer us. Some symbols defy full explanation. This may be because we have connected with them emotionally, or intuitively, before being able to rationally analyze their meaning. Or it may be because they communicate some sort of trans-rational meaning, something we could never wholly explain.

But there is only so much one can write on the topic of “things which one cannot write about”! So let us turn to the “middle” of the spectrum of symbols, lying between those whose meaning is inarticulable and those whose meaning does not even need articulation.

Suppose a poet writes on the subject of stability, and chooses an arch as his emblem of that idea. This choice is not quite arbitrary. Arches maintain themselves by an equipoise of opposing tensions: the pressure of the two sides trying to fall in opposite directions, and of the keystone at the top trying to fall downwards, are exactly what cause an arch to stay up. An arch is therefore a natural symbol of balance and stability; a reader might even be able to spot its meaning without being told. However, a variety of interpretations are still possible for symbols like this: an arch might symbolize paradox instead of balance (since the way an arch stands up is through opposing pressures that push down). Which meaning, or set of meanings, is relevant will depend on what the author is trying to do. This is why some, and yet not all, symbols are shared by different cultures (like the earth as a mother or light as knowledge), even without cross-cultural contact.

For related reasons, symbolism is connected to that branch of philosophy called ontology. Ontology is literally “the study of being,” and delves into questions like what makes a thing what it is, what kinds of relationships can exist between things, and so forth. Plato’s theory of the Forms is one of the most famous ontological theories, and in a way, it makes the whole material world a system of symbols. The Form of rose-ness is the only real rose; the roses we see on earth are material symbols of the Rose. In the Symposium, Plato suggests that the reason people fall in love is that love gives us a hint of how we should feel about the Form of Beauty, and that the real purpose or “use” of falling in love is to be our first step up the ladder toward contemplating Beauty in itself. As the Roman Empire became mostly Christian in late antiquity, this idea blended easily with the doctrine of creation, producing a picture of the cosmos in which everything was both itself and a symbol of something else—all ultimately leading the soul back towards God. This was a favorite theme among the moralists, theologians, and poets of the Middle Ages. 

Omnis mundi creatura
Quasi liber et pictura
Nobis est in speculum:
Nostræ vitæ, nostræ mortis,
Nostri status, nostræ sortis,
Fidele signaculum.

  Each thing in this world's creation,
  Like a book's illumination,
  As our mirror let it be:
  There our life, and there our end,
  Now, and what the fates shall send,
  Is betokened faithfully.

This outlook was also related to the medieval approach to the Bible, likewise inherited from antiquity. Both the text of Scripture and the events it related were held to be symbolic of greater spiritual realities, often in a prophetic way—for instance, the story of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea, and then drowning the armies of Pharaoh in them, was viewed as a prototype of the sacrament of baptism (the believer passes through, but the sins are drowned). The Catholic Church defined four standard levels of meaning in Scripture:

  1. the literal,* which was the meaning consciously intended by the author;
  2. the typological, the sense in which the text described or applied to the life and ministry of Jesus;
  3. the moral, or the text’s application to the paths of sin, repentance, and virtue; and
  4. the mystical, about the ultimate union of the soul with God.

In medieval universities, a short piece of sing-song summarized the four meanings: “The literal teaches history; the typological, what to believe; the moral, what you should do; the mystical, where you are going.” (Esoteric interpretations of the Tanakh and the Qur’an were known in Judaism and Islam as well.)

Another prominent force in medieval literature was allegory. Allegory is a literary genre or device,** in which abstractions are personified and used as characters—all of its characters are symbolic. (“Allegory” is sometimes applied to any work with parallels to some other thing, but this is erroneous.) It was a particular favorite for theological and moral writers, and also among poets on the subject of courtly love, as in The Romance of the Rose. Allegory has been out of fashion for centuries today; even so, a handful of allegories have remained popular. The Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, has never been out of print, which is more than can be said about most theological books by seventeenth-century Calvinists!

No one made a more brilliant use of both the multi-layered interpretive system of Scripture and the techniques of literary allegory than Dante. The Divine Comedy is generally understood as his personal vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven, and so it is; but it is meant to operate on all four interpretive levels at once, and to apply to people in general, not just Dante himself. The literal sense of the Comedy gives a symbolic description of the author’s awakening to his own entanglement in personal and social sin, his extrication from those things, and his restoration to a state of grace, all under the guidance of his artistic love for Virgil and his chivalric love for Beatrice. That same narrative has a far wider range of typological, moral, and mystical applications, both for individuals and whole communities.

Already this indicates a deeper, and more complex, artistic structure than most works possess—yet Dante goes still further. Allegory as a genre uses personified abstractions as its characters, typically indicating what each character represents by naming them for it. But Dante shrewdly selected familiar figures from history, literature, and then-current society and politics, who were suited to act as natural symbols of the ideas he wanted: rather than trying to come up with a convincing, rounded character portrait for abstract concepts like Ecclesiastical Corruption or Conscience or Scholastic Theology, he presents us with people like Pope Nicholas III, Cato the Younger, and St. Thomas Aquinas, whose real lives made them suitable symbols of these qualities. The Comedy therefore possesses great flexibility, and can operate simultaneously as an extremely individual story about a single person’s spiritual journey on one level, while serving as a discussion of a whole society on another—and both the personal and societal meanings of the work can be extrapolated, to symbolize any individual and any community.

There is yet a third way in which signs and symbols have played a major role in the Great Conversation. But to do justice to that, we will need yet a third post.

Part III to come!

*Few words cause as much trouble as “literal.” Literary might be better, since the “literal” sense of a text might be an allegory. For instance, the “literal” sense of Orwell’s Animal Farm is allegorical (sort of)—we are not meant to read it thinking about the political schemes of actual talking animals.

**The typological sense of Scripture was also called allegorical. This can be confusing, since this meaning is a little different from allegory as a genre; worse, all the non-literal senses of the Bible were sometimes collectively called “allegorical”!

Suggested reading:
St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith IV.15-16
Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meaune, The Romance of the Rose
Edmund Spenser, The Færie Queene
Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church, “The Writing and Reading of Allegory”
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose


Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle, a freelance author, and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

If you liked this piece, check out our seminar series on the great ideas, led by professional academics from colleges all across the country. You might also be interested in our profiles of influential thinkers in Western history, such as Euclid, St. Benedict, St. Teresa, Jonathan Edwards, Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Steinbeck.

Published on 21st September, 2022. Page image of an illustration by Arthur Rackham (1935) for The Masque of the Red Death (originally published 1842).

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