Nature Not Symbolic

Mysticism and symbolism are generally regarded as

inseparable: some may go so far as to make them practically

synonymous. Hence the large space devoted to symbols in most

treatises on Mysticism. Recejac, for instance, in his treatise on

the "Bases of the Mystic Belief," devotes about two-thirds of

the whole to this subject. Whence such preponderating

emphasis? There are, of course, many conspiring causes, but the

conception of the Absolute is still the strongest. Given an

Unconditioned which is beyond the reach of sense and reason,

the phenomenal is necessarily degraded to the rank of the

merely symbolical. Nature, being at an infinite distance from

the Real, can only "stand for" the Real; and any knowledge

which it can mediate is so indirect as to be hardly worthy of the


To this degradation of the phenomenal the true nature-mystic is

bound to demur, if he is to be faithful to his fundamental

principle. He desires direct communion with the Real, and looks

to external nature as a means to attain his end. To palm off upon

him something which "stands for" the Real is to balk him of his

aim; for the moment the symbol appears, the Real disappears:

its place is taken by a substitute which at the best is Maya--an

illusion; or, to use technical phraseology of the metaphysical

sort, is "mere appearance."

But further, the symbolic conception of nature would seem to

contradict the requirement of immediacy--a requirement more

vital to the Absolutist than to the genuine nature-mystic, and yet

apparently lost from the view of those who are the strongest

advocates of symbolism. For intuition implies direct insight,

independent of reasoning process and conceptual construction.

Whereas, a symbol, in any ordinary acceptation of the word, is

indisputably a product of conscious mental processes: its very

reference beyond itself demands conscious analysis and

synthesis, and a conscious recognition of complicated systems

of relations. The doctrine of symbols is thus in reality

subversive of Mysticism of any kind, and more especially of

Nature Mysticism.

Let it not be supposed that to argue thus is to repudiate

symbolism as such. Whoever understands the nature and

conditions of human knowledge sees that symbolic systems, of

endless variety, are necessary instruments in almost every

department of theory, research, and practice. We cannot move

without them. Some symbols are thoroughly abstract and

artificial, but frequently of the utmost value, in spite of their

being pure creations of the mind. Other symbols are founded on

analogies and affinities deep down in the nature of things, and

so come nearer to the matter of genuine intuition. Between the

two extremes there are an infinite number of graded systems,

some of which enter into the very texture of daily life. But so

long as, and in so far as, there is a "standing for" instead of a

"being," the mystic, qua mystic, is defrauded of his direct

communion with the Ground of things.

But the mystic who champions symbolism may object that the

definition of that term must not be taken so narrowly, and that

there is the wider sense in which it is taken by writers on

aesthetics. Some such definition as this may be attempted: A

symbol is something which does not merely "stand for"

something else, but one which, while it has a meaning of its

own, points onward to another thing beyond itself, and suggests

an ideal content which of itself it cannot fully embody. But are

we really cleared of our difficulty by substituting "suggests" for

"stands for"? Again it must be insisted that the mystic aims at

direct communion, not with that which is "suggested," but that

which "is." An object may be low or high in the scale of

existence, may be rich or poor in content--but it is what it is,

and, as such, and in and for itself, may be the source of an

intuition. The man lying on the bank of the mill-stream and

meditating on the water-wheel wanted the secret of the wheel

itself, not what the wheel "suggested." Jefferies, yearning for

fuller soul-life, and sensitive to nature's aspects, felt that the

life was there--that the universe _is_ the life--that the life is

intuited in and through the universe, though not grasped as

yet by the conscious reasoning processes.

As an interesting example, the symbol of the cross may be

briefly considered. Why should a form so simple and so familiar

have acquired an astonishingly wide range and be generally

regarded as symbolic of life? Much has to be learnt before the

problem is solved. One thing seems fairly certain--the choice

has not been wholly arbitrary; there has been at work an

intuitional, subconscious factor. Is it possible that the negativing

of a line in one direction by a line in another direction raises

subliminally a sense of strain, then of effort, then of purposeful

will, and so, lastly, of life? Probably a piece of pure

imagination! And yet there must be some real power in the

symmetrical form itself to account for its symbolic career.

Conscious reason, obscurely prompted by this power, evolved

the symbolic use; and the strange interminglings of intuition,

rational action, and force of circumstance, during the long

course of civilised history, have accomplished the rest.

The train of reflection thus started will add special point to a

passage from an early letter of Kingsley's, quoted by Inge in a

slightly curtailed form, but here given in full. "The great

Mysticism is the belief that is becoming every day stronger with

me, that all symmetrical natural objects, aye, and perhaps all

forms, colours, and scents which show organisation or

arrangement, are types of some truth or existence, of a grade

between the symbolical type and the mystic type. When I walk

the fields I am oppressed every now and then with an innate

feeling, that everything I see has a meaning, if I could but

understand it. And this feeling of being surrounded with truths

which I cannot grasp, amounts to indescribable awe sometimes!

Everything seems to be full of God's reflex, if we could but see


The passage is of profound significance when taken as a whole,

and will serve as a remarkable description of the genuine mystic

experience which can be prompted by nature, without going to

the length of "vision," still less of ecstasy. But the stress now

lies on the words--"a grade between the symbolical type and the

mystic type." Kingsley evidently realised the insufficiency of

symbolism to meet his demands, while he shrank from the

vagueness of what was called Mysticism. Objects for him had a

meaning in their own right, and he was casting about for a

fitting term to express this fact. He also distinctly states that to

him, "Everything seems to be full of God's reflex." Once grant

that Nature Mysticism, as denned and illustrated in the

preceding chapters, is a genuine form of Mysticism, and his

difficulty would be solved. The natural objects which stirred his

emotions would be acknowledged as part and parcel of the

ultimate Ground itself, and therefore competent to act, not as

substitutes for something else not really present, but in their

own right, and of their own sovereign prerogative. Nature, in

short, is not a mere stimulus for a roving fancy or teeming

imagination: it is a power to be experienced, a secret to be

wrested, a life to be shared.

The famous "Canticle of the Sun" of St. Francis d'Assisi gives

naive and spontaneous expression to the same truth. Natural

objects, for this purest of mystics, were no bare symbols, nor

did they gain their significance by suggesting beyond

themselves. He addressed them as beings who shared with him

the joy of existence. "My Brother the Sun"--"my Sister the

Moon"--"our Mother the Earth"--"my Brother the Wind"--"our

Sister Water"--"Brother Fire." The same form of address is

maintained for things living and things lifeless. And it is

obvious that the endearing terms of relationship are more than

metaphors or figures of speech. His heart evidently goes with

them: he genuinely claims kinship. Differences dissolve in a

sense of common being. It would be an anachronism to read

into these affectionate names the more fully developed

mysticism of Blake, or Shelley, or Emerson. But the absence of

any tinge of symbolic lore is noteworthy.

Kingsley, as was just seen, was feeling about for something

more satisfactory than mystic symbolism; so also was Emerson.

"Mysticism" (he writes) "consists in the mistake of an

accidental and individual symbol for an universal one. . . . The

mystic must be steadily told, 'All that you say is just as true

without the tedious use of that symbol as with it.'" Emerson's

uneasiness is manifest. He is rebelling, but is not quite sure of

his ground. At one time he inclines to think the mystic in fault

because he "nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense

for a moment, but soon becomes old and false." At another time

he is inclined to condemn the symbol altogether as being of too

"accidental" a character. But it is surely simpler to throw

symbolism overboard so far as genuine mystic experience is

concerned. What the mystic is in search of is "meaning" in its

own right--"meaning" existing in and for itself. Anything less is

a fraud. Emerson nearly reached this conclusion, as witness the

following passage: "A happy symbol is a sort of evidence that

your thought is just. . . . If you agree with me, or if Locke or

Montesquieu agree, I may yet be wrong; but if the elm tree

thinks the same thing, if running water, if burning coal, if

crystals, if alkalies, in their several fashions, say what I say, it

must be true." Here Emerson is all but clean out of the tangle.

He speaks of a "happy symbol." But inasmuch as this "happy

symbol" is to express what the elm tree, the running water, and

the rest, _actually say_ in their several fashions, it is safer to

drop the idea of symbolism altogether; for what they _say_, is

not what they "stand for," but what they actually _are_.

If the contention is renewed that the elm tree, running water,

and the rest, _suggest_ truths and thoughts beyond themselves,

of course the point may be readily granted. But this is only to

affirm that every object is linked on to every other object by a

multiplicity of relations--that each part is woven into the texture

of a larger whole in a universe of interpenetrations. The

consistent working out of the organic interdependence of the

modes and forms of existence is found in such a system as that

of Hegel, where each part pre-supposes correlatives, and where

each stage or "moment" includes all the past, and presses on to

that which dialectically succeeds. It is not necessary to be a

Hegelian to appreciate the grand idea of his doctrine--that all

modes and manifestations of the Real are logically and

organically connected. But to say that one stage of the evolution

of the Idea is dependent on another, or essentially involves

another, is not to make the lower of the stages symbolic of the

higher. Indeed to introduce the concept of symbolism at all into

such a context is to court inextricable confusion. Let symbolism

be one thing, and let organic (or dialectic) connection be

another--then we know where we are when we claim for natural

objects that they have a being and a meaning in their own right,

and that they are akin to the soul of man. Emerson had a firm

grasp of the nature-mystic's inevitable contention.

"The rounded world is fair to see,

Nine-times folded in mystery:

Though baffled seers cannot impart

The secret of its labouring heart.

Throb thine with Nature's throbbing breast,

And all is clear from east to west.

Spirit that lurks each form within

Beckons to spirit of its kin;

Self-kindled every atom glows,--

And hints the future which it owes."