SYMBOLS & THE CYCLIC CHARACTER OF HUMAN EXISTENCE
There has probably been no time in the history of human civilization when the word symbol or its equivalent in any language has been as much used or given so many varied meanings as it is today. Some philosophers and psychologists have coined new words in an attempt to make these meanings more precise. The words "symbol" and "sign" have been differentiated, and the distinction is useful provided no strict boundaries are established between the two sets of meaning. Roughly speaking, a sign is a deliberately shaped indication revealing that certain conditions or circumstances are to be expected at a certain place or time. For instance, road signs tell the motorist that a dangerous turn or crossing lies ahead, or that certain roads lead to specific places. A sign, if precise and accurate, is strictly factual. It is a conventional and socially understandable way of presenting facts.
Facts, however, are strange entities, and different human beings respond to them differently according to their temperament, expectations, or emotional states. A "mere fact" can differ considerably from an "expected fact." The rationalist and the scientist may think they deal with mere facts, but these facts can arouse many varied emotions. If they reach a collectivity of men at special times their meaning can be magnified or distorted and can radiate into many unforeseen directions. Einstein's formula, e = mc squared, refers to a mere fact of the atomic realm, but after Hiroshima it became far more than a sign or a factual indication of the objective relationship of energy to mass. It stood as a symbol of the possible fate which the Western scientific mind and technology had foisted upon mankind, incorporating an immense variety of direct or indirect consequences, a constellation of emotions, such as pride, greed and fear. Indeed, a basic question about the end value and moral implications of a certain type of knowledge and of its unprotected and possibly premature dissemination became implied in the fact-defining equation. Einstein's objective discovery and the purely factual statement of it has become an extremely potent symbol of the state of existence which mankind has reached today — and it is a crucial and potentially frightening as well as perhaps inspiring and challenging state. As I stated in my recent book The Planetarization of Consciousness*:
*Cf. Chapter IX, "Symbols and Values," p. 256.
A fact is what it is particularly and exclusively as a fact; it can be described and recorded in such a manner that, at least theoretically speaking, its precise character is not open to doubt. We might also say that "facts" belong to the category of rational entities: these entities can be precisely denied inasmuch as the definition implies all that they are not, i.e. the definition essentially excludes other conceptual entities. On the other hand when one deals with a symbol one is in the presence of something that goes beyond the rational and the factual, something that is more than it is, because the symbol describes not only what it appears to be rationally and objectively, but also the relationship between a specific human need and the possibility of satisfying this need.
A symbol is formulated when there is a human need for it. It may be a strictly personal need. The psychological or prophetic dreams of a particular person belong to this category; they bring to the individual an intimation of a particular condition of existence, be it physiological, psychological or social. They may suggest an answer to a problem, perhaps until then but superficially understood. Likewise when a clairvoyant to whom a client has come with an unsolved problem "sees" in front of him or in his mind a symbolic shape or a scene with several actors, this should theoretically be an answer to the client's need, although the need may as yet be only subconscious or half conscious. The symbol is "person-centered."
Similarly, for the humanistic astrologer, a birth chart is a person-centered symbol.* That is to say, it carries a "message" — the symbolic formulation of the individual's dharma. It suggests how he can best actualize the innate potentialities of his particular and unique selfhood. It is a symbol, a mandala, or logos, a word of power. Astrology, seen from this point of view, is a language of symbols. Because it is a language, it implies a process of unfoldment of an idea of feeling-response. A birth chart is static, yet it can be "progressed" and related to the continuing movements of the planets after birth ("transits"). In the same sense, a true mandala is more than a static geometrical figure; it suggests a process of unfoldment or, as Carl Jung might have said, of "individuation."
*Cf. My Humanistic Astrology series of booklets, particularly No. 1: "Astrology for New Minds."
The entire zodiac constitutes a mandala. There are time mandalas as well as space mandalas. The cycle of transformations studied in this book is a time mandala. It has rhythm as well as form. Any language, particularly any poem, also has rhythm and form. The 360 Sabian symbols are words in a vast cosmic poem whose meaning transcends the often banal images visualized by the clairvoyant.*
*For a thorough study of the mandala, the reader is referred to the beautifully illustrated book Mandala (Shambala Publications, Berkeley, California, 1972) by Jose and Miriam Arguelles.
All words are symbols. They answer the basic human need of communication. At first they seem to have often been onomatopoeia, i.e. vocal imitations of actually heard sounds, sounds which the collective experience of the men of a tribe associated with a particular animal or natural phenomenon. A developed language is a collection of symbols; some of its words go beyond merely representing entities, to expressing the character of the relationship between entities, or the quality of an activity (past, present, or future) and often its biological polarity or gender. Algebra is a symbolic language which answers the need for precise yet abstract and universal statements of relationships; its formulas are actually more than mere statements of fact, for they imply the existence of universal order and the belief in permanent laws of nature and "constants."
All cultures depend on the use of symbols which are accepted more or less consciously by the total community. Cultural institutions, and the arts and sciences of a fully developed community, whether "primitive" or modern, constitute essentially complex and systematized organizations of symbols which structure the behavior, basic feelings and thinking of the human beings belonging to this culture. As the culture develops, matures and decays, so do the symbols on which it rests and from which its cohesive strength and vitality emerge.
Symbols integrate the separate experiences of a vast number of men. They take events from the realm of the fortuitous, the unprecedented, the unique and the incomprehensible to the realm of "universals." The logical sequence of symbols which one finds in all languages, in all scientific theories, in all traditional art forms and in all religious rituals creates from the seemingly chaotic, unpredictable and senseless facts of life patterns of order and meaning. A thousand events or personal situations come to be seen as mere variations on a central theme. The symbol depicts for us this one significant theme. And the theme is part of a coherent sequence of similar challenges, which acquire purpose through their interrelationship. Expressed through symbols, life becomes condensed into a relatively few interrelated units of experience. Each unit is a concentrate of the experiences of millions of people.
Today, we who have been molded by the Western tradition usually think that there is for each of us an infinite variety of possible experiences. What we experience is strictly our own; every moment is new; no event is ever repeated. However, while it is true that human experience is unlimited, the normal experience of man is finite insofar as the number of characteristic and significant types of experiences is concerned. If a man could be moving, regardless of physical obstacles, on the surface of the globe along the equator, he could go on endlessly. His motion would be "unlimited." Yet his experiences of conditions and scenes along the route would be finite. After having completed a whole turn around the globe he would begin to encounter the same geographical features again. His experiences would basically repeat themselves, even though he might respond to them differently at each new encounter. In the same way, man's basic life experiences constitute a closed series. By "basic" I mean typical and characteristic underneath surface variations.
We find the same principle of repeated series of experiences in relation to time. Time is cyclic. Everything that lives begins, reaches a climax and ends — but only to begin again. The universal illustration of this is the cycle of the seasons in temperate climates.
That there is a yearly cycle of the seasons does not mean, however, that we can expect an exact and literal repetition of actual events or facts each year. What recur are, for the living plant, basic challenges of growth. Each spring the seeds of wheat are new seeds, the weather differs somewhat, and other facts may vary. But the overall, basic spring challenge for the species of wheat is that there should be germination and growth. The facts may vary, but the meaning remains, year after year.
In other words, human experience is essentially cyclic and it unfolds according to structural principles. However varied men's experiences may appear to be, they nevertheless fall within the limits of a series of what might also be called "archetypal" meanings. Such a series has a recurring character insofar as its structure is concerned; it constitutes a whole of meanings. But I cannot repeat enough that "structure" and "contents" belong, as it were, to two different realms, even if these realms interpenetrate at every point.
I have discussed these ideas in The Planetarization of Consciousness, but they have to be restated briefly here because if they are not understood and at least accepted as significant hypotheses, the logical and philosophical foundation for the use of cyclic series of symbols — as, for example, the I Ching and the Sabian series — loses all solidity. Indeed, the whole of astrology rests philosophically on the basic idea that it is possible to refer all the essential functions implied in the existence of an organized field of activity, and especially of a living organism, to ten variables represented by the ten "planets" of modern astrology (including the Sun and Moon). Astrology also claims that the twelve Houses constitute archetypal classes of experiences necessary for the development of a mature individual person, and that the twelve signs of the zodiac refer to twelve basic modes of "energy," or archetypal qualities of being, which essentially color any functional activity (i.e. planet) operating in their fields. In these and related instances the basic idea is always that we are living in an ordered and structured universe which constitutes a "cyclocosmic" whole, which is finite. All structured fields of activity are finite, yet the existential events and the possibilities of interrelationships are indefinite — which does not mean infinite!
We have been more or less accustomed to the idea that the internal activities of any organism are limited and periodical. We speak of the cycle of food metabolism, of blood circulation, and in a broader sense of the cycle of activity of the endocrine glands throughout a complete life cycle, from birth to death. But we are usually unready to assume that the experiences of the person as a whole are also limited and periodical; or, to put it differently, to admit that there are only a certain number of basic meanings to be gathered by a human being in his life-time, and that these meanings can be seen in terms of structural and cyclic sequence.
Again, this does not mean that a person cannot experience a great variety of events. He may have many thoughts and experiences. But to experience events is one thing; to release from them vital and creative meanings is another. What counts, spiritually speaking, is the harvest of meanings a person is able to gather from these many and varied experiences. For this reason a life crowded with events is not necessarily the richest in meanings.
Hindu yogis claim that the number of breaths an individual can take during a lifetime is limited and set; this might apply to heartbeats as well. All natural organic functions are limited or finite in their schedule of operation, but what sets the boundaries is generic human nature. The amount of vitality wound up in the germ cell is probably limited. An individual, however, acting as an individual and having succeeded in becoming free from collective patterns, may break through the circle of limitations and tap a deeper source of life and consciousness; this indeed is what true occultism is about.
Generically man is organically bounded; as a creative and free individual, however, he can break through nature's "Ring-Pass-Not" (to use an occult term) and become a functioning part within a greater organism, thus becoming vitalized by the power of this greater life. Generically speaking, collectively speaking, culturally speaking, a person has a certain range of meanings open to him for him to incorporate into his actual experience. It is to this "range of meanings" — conditioned by collective factors and controlled by the images of the collective Unconscious of his race and culture — that the series of picture symbols of the Chinese I Ching as well as the series of 360 Sabian symbols refer.
Even though a normal cultured person meets all the facts of experience that can possibly be crowded into the few decades of life, only those experiences from which meaning has been extracted count spiritually, and are remembered. These meanings, finite in terms of their archetypal characteristics, constitute an organic whole because they are creative products of the person's total personality, which is an "organism" in the broader sense of the term. In their sequence and unfoldment they display an organic and cyclic quality; and the structural factor in this process of extraction of meanings from experience can be derived from simple numerical principles, such as those of the I Ching or the Sabain cycle of symbols.
In the Chinese system, the basic mathematical principle of structuring is fundamentally dualistic. There are two life principles operating in and through all human experiences: Yang and Yin — light and darkness, positive and negative. Day-force and Night-force, masculine and feminine, "essence" and "life," "Logos" and "Eros," etcetera. These two polarities, combined in a three-fold and six-fold pattern of interaction (or at three and six "levels" of being) produce the eight permutations represented by the trigrams of the I Ching, and the sixty-four hexagrams (8 =2x2x2, and 64 == 2x2x2x2x2x2. The next increase, 2 to the 12th, would be 4096).
In the Sabian system, the cyclic structure is more complex: it is founded upon a pattern derived from the relationship between the day and the year — periods which constitute the two most basic factors in the structuring of human experience. It is true that the year contains more than 360 days, which means that the earth rotates more than 360 times around its polar axis during a complete revolution around its orbit; but an intriguing feature common to all celestial periods is that they can never be measured in whole numbers and no planetary cycle is an exact multiple of another.
This means that one has to distinguish between archetypal and existential cycles and relationships. Rationally we divide the circle into 4 or 6, or 360 parts; but the facts of existence present us with a little over 365 days of the year-cycle. The 360-degree zodiac is a formula of archetypal relationships; but our human experience presents to our consciousness a slightly larger sequence of days and nights. The 360-degree cycle refers to the meaning of experience; the days-and-nights sequence to the facts of experience.
We shall see how this 360-degree pattern subdivides itself geometrically through a two-fold, three-fold, four-fold, five-fold and six-fold rational segmentation. Such interior processes of subdivision of the organic series of 360 degrees define various patterns of relationships and sub-series of degrees which, considered in their entirety, constitute the structure of a cycle of meanings. No cyclic series of symbols can be considered significant which does not reveal some definite kind of internal structuring, however interesting and apt isolated symbols may be.
This is why, in my opinion, out of the few sets of 360 degree symbols which have been recorded in Western astrology only the Sabian symbols should be considered truly valid. Other sets might reveal an equally significant internal structure if carefully studied and reformulated, but I have not seen any work done in that direction. The issue here reaches much deeper than a superficial evaluation of this or that set of 360 symbols. It deals with the difference between a holistic and an atomistic approach to human experience and to life or knowledge in general.
When we deal with any cyclic series of factors or phases, merely to consider the character, quality and value of the symbolic representation of any one of these factors as a separate entity without an essential (or structural) relationship to all the others makes no sense to the holistic mind. Every phase no doubt has a character of its own which can be described in one way or another, but this character should be given some kind of functional or "organic" meaning in terms of the cyclic process as a whole. If one looks at the process of growth of an organism every phase of that process has a functional meaning in relation to the preceding and succeeding phases. It does not represent an isolated occurrence. In the same way, if one studies the 22 Tarot cards or the 64 symbols of the I Ching, one is dealing with a succession of phases referring to a whole process; the 12 signs of the tropical zodiac — which as a whole refer to the annual cyclic relationship of the Earth to the Sun — likewise have meaning according to their position in the complete cycle of the year.
In my book The Pulse of Life (published in 1943. but originally written as a series of articles a few years earlier)* I stressed the fact that every zodiacal sign represents a specific combination of two interacting and interdependent forces, the Day-force and the Night-force (Yang and Yin). It is the relative intensities of these two forces and their polarization which determines fundamentally or structurally the dynamic nature and function of each sign.
*Present edition: Shambala Publications, Berkeley, California, 1970.
The zodiac as a whole refers to avitalistic process of transformation of energy; but when we deal with the series of 360 degree symbols we see the relationship of the Earth to the Sun operating at a different level. It is a level at which literally every day-and-night period (every rotation of the globe) acquires a symbolic and structural meaning. The twelve-fold zodiac deals essentially with varying modalities of solar energy, as the waves of this energy strike the Earth. It deals with life. The series of 360 degrees deals with meaning. It represents, I repeat, a finite cyclic series of meanings which an individual may extract from experiences related to these degrees and their symbols; while he may, the individual surely does not need to discover, assimilate and consciously become aware of these meanings.
The potentiality of meaning depends basically on the stage of development of mankind and especially of any particular culture out of whose collective Unconscious (or archetypal Mind) the symbols have emerged, becoming formed into images, scenes and words. The Chinese hexagrams and symbols recorded in the I Ching were not based on degrees of the zodiacal cycle, since they took shape out of a simple, uncomplicated, agricultural culture at the "vitalistic" stage of human society — a stage basically related to the male-female polarities of the life force. Yet the 64 symbols formulate profound meanings deeply rooted in the universal experience of man when in close relationship to the energies of Earth-nature, and of his own generic nature as well. The symbols use an imagery that is close to the foundations of the natural life — and these foundations are still very real and active in the immense majority of human beings.
Today we live in a much more complex and highly individualistic society, and it is logical to find the need for a much greater number of symbols. In the Sabain set some of these symbols deal with rather trivial scenes depicting phases of American life; others are far more fundamental in their philosophical implications. Taken together they present a characteristic motley picture of American society at the beginning of the second quarter of the twentieth century. As our entire globe is "Americanized" and technologized, it could be that these Sabian symbols will have a long life. The formulations can be altered, and Marc Jones himself has modified them greatly several times. In this book I have kept the pictures as originally recorded, but I have rephrased obscure statements and tried to clarify the contents of the symbols through their relationship to preceding and following images.
What is important is that the series of symbols should bring order and meaning to what very often seems a chaotic and confused sequence of life events, by revealing the meaning, quality, direction and purpose of any puzzling situation which the inquirer seems unable successfully to cope With by means of rational judgments. Chaotic as events may be, one can nevertheless state that a person has the experiences he is entitled to, or has asked for, consciously or not — and no others. Events occur in relation to the process of actualization of his innate potential of being, i.e. his individual self. Each basic event conditions the manner in which the person is to take a step ahead in his structural development. Whether or not the individual takes this step, and the quality of his advance — which can also appear to be a temporary regression — depends on the meaning he gives to the event. He may not be truly aware of giving it a particular meaning, but in some manner his organism and/or his ego responds as a result of past sociocultural and personal conditioning.
Conflicts arise because various parts of the personality very often give different value to events; especially in periods of deep-seated cultural and social confusion when collectively accepted traditional values are breaking down, conflicts of meaning are frequently experienced. Values and meanings are always conditioned by certain "frames of reference." When old sociocultural and religious-ethical frames of reference have become unreliable and can no longer convincingly structure the series of experiences and the responses of individuals, the urge to discover some new frame of reference becomes urgently necessary. And it is for this reason that today's disenchanted adults and restless, disbelieving youth — once they thoroughly weary of practices and groups which seek to "de-condition" them by freeing them from binding patterns and old "hang ups," yet offer no convincing and secure foundation for a new conception of order — are searching for some land of "revelation" with a superhuman and even super-rational and super-mental origin.
This is obviously the deepest reason for the present popularity of astrology; for in the order of the cosmos the uprooted consciousness hopes to find a solid frame of reference from which new meanings — new to him — can be derived. These new meanings in turn can provide him with the yearned-for inner security. In this sense, astrology constitutes a cosmic type of oracle, at least insofar as it is person-centered, referring to the problems and the search for meaning of individual persons. The "solar astrology" of popular magazines and newspaper columns is oracular in that it is meant to convey to human beings, categorized according to the twelve Sun signs, general value judgments concerning the character of those responses to everyday circumstances which would be most suited to their basic temperaments. The position of the planets in zodiacal signs and their mutual relationships are believed to establish such value judgments.
That is to say, the state of the solar system at any time is said to provide an oracular message to human beings according to their Sun-sign relationship to the solar system. Obviously such an oracle can at best be very general, and unless it is formulated in very abstract terms — which then are susceptible of an infinite variety of interpretations — it can be ludicrous and meaningless for the individual. On the other hand, the oracular potentiality of astrology becomes precisely focused in what is called "horary astrology," for there a particular individual at a precise moment demands the solution to a particular problem. The pattern of the sky for that precise moment requires a very complex type of interpretation, but traditional rules are available to at least guide the interpretation.
We find the same type of situation whenever the I Ching is asked for oracular pronouncements. The Sabian symbols can serve the same function, even though so far the astrologers who have made use of them have applied them almost exclusively to giving a new dimension of meaning to the exact positions of the planets and the angles in the charts erected for the birth moment of an individual, or for some spectacular event.
What is to be stressed, as we begin the study of the Sabian symbols, is that their character should be considered at two levels, one purely abstract, the other existential (i.e. the image or scene depicted in the symbol). A degree symbol has archetypal meaning because it is, let us say, the eleventh in a series of 360 symbols, and because the number 360 is the result of the abstracted relationship between the daily axial rotation and the yearly orbital revolution of the Earth. It has an existential meaning because it carries a "revealed" pictorial symbol; in this case The ruler of a nation (cf. p. 57).
The revealed image could theoretically be dispensed with. But how then would we interpret the meaning of the eleventh phase in a cyclic process numbering 360 phases? Astrology could help us by saying that the year's cyclic process archetypally begins at the spring equinox, and therefore that the eleventh phase of the process (Aries 11°) refers to the eleventh day after the equinox. But one could hardly base a significant value judgment dealing with either the position of Jupiter in a birth chart or the answer to what could be expected of a new relationship just entered into, on the assumed character of the eleventh day of spring. One has to obtain a more definitive existential situation or image from which the value judgment can be extracted, a situation or image truly full of potentiality of meaning.
But here again we have to return to the point that what is "full potentiality of meaning" for the man of one culture may not have this same character for a man of another culture. Many of the Sabian symbols would have meant nothing whatsoever to a Chinese of the early Dynasties. In the same way, some of the symbols of the I Ching need to be given modernized interpretations to fit the search for meaning of an American faced with the intricate and artificial problems of our complex families or professional existence within chaotic cities.
The difficult question is why the symbols of the Sabian series should be significant. For the empirically minded person this question would immediately be rephrased: Are they significant? Do they really work?
We shall deal with these questions in the next chapter. But in closing this discussion it seems necessary to state that the symbolic and holistic characterization of the 360 degrees of the zodiac has nothing to do with the analytical and statistical attempts, which a number of astrologers have been making for some time, to relate at least some degrees of the zodiac to specific bio-psychological characteristics or tendencies and to particular faculties or diseases. In these attempts the analytical and would-be scientific astrologer is not concerned with meaning, but only with definite and standardized traits of human nature, unusual or outstanding circumstances, or telluric events. The entire procedure is existential and statistical, and fundamentally it should not interest the individual person. Its results can actually be most detrimental to the individual: for instance, if in the degree characteristics of his Sun or Mars or Ascendant he sees a degree of "suicide" or "insanity" or "consumption" or one showing "homicidal tendencies" or even "homosexuality. "
It should be evident to any psychologically alert and intelligent astrologer that such negative and, in several instances, appalling characterizations might easily throw an insecure personality off balance. Making them available to the average person surely has psychologically destructive potentialities. In fact, such statistics should be altogether disregarded in any type of person-centered astrology, for they cannot be taken as a basis for an answer to any problem which an individual person may seek to solve by way of astrology, including the fundamental problems of "Who am I?" and "What am I here for?" lf statistics seem to show that many people dying of tuberculosis have "malefic" planets, or even the Sun and Moon on a particular degree of the zodiac, it does not indicate in any way that a person with Mars, Saturn or the Ascendant on that degree will contract tuberculosis. Perhaps 65 percent of the persons having such a natal configuration can be said to have developed TB; but even if this were so, it tells nothing to an individual with this configuration, for he can just as well belong to the 35 percent who are totally free from the disease.
The modern mind hypnotized by quantitative values and statistics will claim that if a person knows about the 65 percent possibility he will naturally be "more careful" to avoid causes of the disease or be more alert to early symptoms. But actually this is at best to be blind to the opposite and far more likely probability — that the very fear of being marked for the illness will bring it about.
Man should not seek tensely and self-protectively to avoid or control events. Events do not happen to an individual person; he happens to them. He meets them and imparts to them his own meaning. It is only when an individual is placed in complex situations involving unknowable factors — unknowable to his normal perceptions and his rational mind — that he may, and indeed should, seek to broaden his perspective by trying to see the events or the prospects facing him sub specie aeternitatis, that is, in their relationship to a cosmic whole of meaning. Carl Jung would probably have said that in such a case an individual mind opens itself to the vast collective Unconscious; I would call it the One Mind of Humanity.
The mind of the human being whose process of individualization has been conditioned by the collective mentality and the traditions of his culture should seek to forget such sociocultural-ethical factors and to reach a state of "planetary consciousness." He will then come to realize that however baffling and unpredictable his present situation may seem to his analytical and rational mind — which is loaded with precedents, anticipations, doubts and anxieties — this development is part of a universal process. It is a very, very small phase in the evolution of mankind and of the planet Earth and the solar system; seen as a phase within the frame of reference of the whole process, it makes sense.
Symbols help man to do this — to make sense of his existence, to see each personal event as a focalized and particularized manifestation of one phase of the whole cosmic process of existence. He can see the most tragic event — tragic by ordinary sociocultural standards — as a phase of growth. At the precise moment when he asks a question from the oracle, the entire universe comes down, as it were, to give him the necessary answer. It is necessary because all truly constructive, creative or redeeming acts are performed through the individual person by a focalization of the whole universe. This is the "transpersonal way" of which I have spoken for many years.* It is the way of the symbolic life, which is not merely a life lived in "the presence of God," but a life lived by the Divine within the individual person as well as within the entire universe.
*Modern Man's Conflicts (1945-46) and my previous articles in The Glass Hive magazine (1930-31) on "The Philosophy of Operative Wholeness"; also more recent volumes like The Planetarization of Consciousness.
The mystic states: "I do not live. God lives me." But if this is actually what takes place, he has become the Avatar of his own Divinity, which is one with the divine Meaning of all existence.
An Astrological Mandala