What Even Are Symbols? Part 1 of a series

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Patrick Dey

Throughout our Masonic journeys, we are constantly presented with symbols and symbolism. Whenever we ask what something means, the short answer is: that it’s symbolic. But what even is a symbol? We have some idea of what symbols are. We have many experiences with the symbolic, so we can muster a working conception of what a symbol is from our personal experience, but having a philosophical framework might be best to really grasp how symbols work and how they are utilized.

This is important: symbols have a utility. I think when we designate symbols as something “spiritual” or “esoteric,” it shuts down any practical use of the symbols. When, in fact, a symbol may be spiritual or profane, or both. They have a utility, they are useful, regardless if it is spiritual or profane. But to make use of symbols, we should have a firmer grasp of what even are symbols.

Firstly, symbols are part of a “sign” system. Within linguistic theory, we have signs and meanings of signs. This is what has long been called a “signified and signifier” relation (i.e. Ferdinand Saussure), and they are arbitrary in their relationship. For instance, we have the word “tree.” It is just a sound we make or just some lines on a piece of paper. The word “tree” is the signifier, the sign. It signifies the idea of what we call a tree, the signified. Plato would delineate these as thing and thingness — a particular example of a tree and the tree-ness of trees. I don’t always agree with Plato, so let’s go back to Saussure. We could, of course, arbitrarily change the signifier as we prefer, and so long as everyone is in agreement that we are changing the signifier, then we can now use a different word sign for the same idea. You see this in legal contracts, where it will state at the beginning that Mr. Joe Brown (hereafter referred to as the Defendant). Thenceforth, any time the documents say “Defendant,” we know that means Joe Brown. Or a better example: have you ever had to deal with someone so despicable that everyone referred to them as “he who must not be named”? We know who everyone is talking about, but we have adopted a new signifier for them, but it still maintains the same signification.

Symbols are a type of sign, but signs do not have to be symbols. Similarly, in geometry, a square is a type of rectangle, but a rectangle does not have to be a square. A square is a special kind of rectangle. Similarly, a symbol is a very special type of sign. Signs usually have a very limited signifier-signified relationship. For instance, if I show you a red octagon, you would interpret that to mean “stop.” Usually, it means to stop the car at this line, but we can put a red octagon in a pop-up warning on a computer, warning you that you are about to do something dangerous on the computer and to not proceed, but the red octagon has pretty much the same meaning, though it is being used in different contexts.

Symbols are what Carl Jung would call “multivalent.” That is, symbols mean a lot of different things, and they can be variously related or not. The red octagon sign really only has one meaning (in American sign systems): to stop. We could use it for something else, such as “this is a mountain,” and we could mutually agree with each other that it now means that, but that would get confusing. Symbols have a flexibility and vagueness that goes beyond a simple sign-signified relationship.

I have never found Jung’s definitions of symbols to be all that helpful. He gets very esoteric and mystical without ever really providing a clear notion of what symbols are. Jung sometimes appears to believe that symbols are so esoteric that it would be a detriment to the idea of symbols to even try to define them. Kind of a cop-out. Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand, gives a very good idea of what symbols are, namely they are simulacra for something that cannot be easily summarized, usually something so large and complex that the symbol stands in for a very broad and complicated system of ideas. In other words, the symbol represents something that cannot be completely comprehended or expressed.

Baudrillard puts symbols within his degrees of simulacra, as outlined in Simulacra and Simulation (1981). There are four orders of simulacra, according to Baudrillard, and each order distorts reality more and more to the point that we find ourselves living in the “desert of the real,” a world full of signs, but no meaning. The first order is a simple copy. Such as a head bust of a famous person. We know that the bust is not that person, but is a faithful representation of their image.

Second-order simulacra are symbols. According to Baudrillard, symbols are not any sort of representation of the likeness of another image, but rather a sign, a signifier for something that cannot be captured in any meaningful way. We will follow the example used by Baudrillard that he takes from Jorge Luis Borges, a one-paragraph short story called “On Rigor in Science” (1946). In this story, there is an empire that has advanced the science of cartography so precisely that the map the cartographers create is the exact same scale as the empire itself — a one-to-one scale, as the map covers the entire empire. For Baudrillard, this means that the physical territory itself has been replaced by the map, the thing meant to represent the empire, not supersede it. Out in the deserts on the fringes of the empire pieces of this ancient map can still be found, hence Baudrillard’s term “the desert of the real.”

Symbols do not function in this way. Rather than express the entirety of the empire at a one-to-one scale, a simple sign will be used. Rather than create a globe to map the world that is the exact same size as Earth to represent the Earth and all things upon it, we could make a simple image of, say, a circle with a cross through it, the classic symbol for Earth. Or we could draw a small, very crude image of a blue and green sphere that vaguely depicts the lands and seas of this planet. This is not just a mere abstraction, but a symbol representing something much greater than can ever be pragmatically depicted without the map replacing the territory, and the globe replacing the planet.

There is more happening on this planet, and more to what makes this “our world” than can ever be depicted: people, plants, production, destruction, birth, death, wars, truces, weather, the intricacies of the clouds, the particulars of a husband and wife arguing, the nuances of children playing… such cannot be captured, and instead of mapping them entirely, we may create a simple image that represents everything that is “the world.” This is how we generate a symbol.

The Lodge itself is like this. The Lodge is described in such a way that it represents the world: east, west, north, south, up, down, center, out, with the starry decked heavens above. A simple box that is longer than it is wide is symbolic of something much greater than can ever truly be mapped. And even the Lodge itself is symbolized in various ways: the circumpunct bounded by two lines, or a simple oblong square, et cetera. Because as much as the Lodge is a symbol of the world in all its manifold complexities, so too is the Lodge a multifaceted thing representing all the various aspects of Freemasonry.

The circumpunct symbol is a very interesting case, as it represents numerous things all at once. It represents the individual brother at the Altar, circumscribed by the boundaries of his passions, but also a representation of the circumambulation he made during his initiation. The two lines further represent the Saints John, which represent the solstices (the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer), which adds to the astrological solar image of the circumpunct itself. This symbol is a loaded image of a variety of things, from the image of initiation to the brethren of the Lodge assembled to the cosmos itself. But this symbol also has a function. Remember I said at the beginning that symbols have a utilitarian function, they are not useless nor do they reside strictly in the realm of the sacred.

For Masonic symbols, they appear to be sacred to the uninitiated, they seem like mystical contrivances of uncertain meaning or power. Yet, to the initiated, we understand these meanings, representations, and significations. The circumpunct reminds us to keep within moderation, to not let our passions and desires get the better of us. The Saints John and the solstitial tropics remind us that even the sun itself has boundaries that it will not cross: it will not go any higher nor farther north in the summer, and that it will not go lower nor farther south in the winter. So too should we set boundaries for ourselves so that we may not transgress. But also we have our brethren there to help us, those to the north of us and those to the south of us when we took our oaths. And so forth.

It feels like we could get into Baudrillard’s conception of the “hyperreal” with the circumpunct being a symbol for the Lodge and the Lodge being a symbol for the world, that a symbol is symbolic of another symbol, and it is kind of getting distorted to the point that we lose the concept of the original, the world. But I digress.

My point here is that symbols are not abstractions or a copy of something. They are a signifier of something much more complex than can be completely represented. However, do not think that Baudrillard feels the symbolic is a good thing. He regards it as “it masks and denatures a profound reality,” whereas the first order of simulacra is “the reflection of a profound reality.” The symbolic is “an evil appearance — it is of the order of maleficence.” For Baudrillard, the symbolic conceals reality, rather than being an abstract expression of it. It denies that reality can ever be fully expressed, and thus must present a signifier to stand in for this lack.

In a way, he has a point. We as Masons are “symbolic” craftsmen. We are not real stonemasons, but rather symbolic of the old stonemason guild system and those who worked within that economic system to build great cathedrals and palaces. We instead build symbolic temples. It is as if the tangible, the real temples that were built are impossible to express their grandeur and sublime nature in any abstract way, and instead must rely on symbolry to express this. But for Baudrillard, it is actually a concealment. Remember: “I hele. I conceal.”

In the second part, we will look at Baudrillard’s third order of simulacra to look at how in Masonry, especially within our so-called “higher” degree systems, this symbolic order breaks down and we begin to see that Masonry becomes something that “masks the absence of a profound reality,” in which we are claiming to be something that never actually existed.


Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister). He is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.

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