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Symbol(on)s of Love,” with Professor Mark C.E. Peterson”

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    Mark C.E. Peterson, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and past President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, is our guest this week in Conversations of a Higher Order to discuss “Symbolons of Love,” his latest contribution to JCF’s MythBlast essay series.

    I’ll get the conversation started, but this is not an interview. Please feel free to jump in and engage Professor Peterson with your comments, questions, observations and insights, which is what will make this a true “conversation of a higher order.”

    Mark – through most of your essay I assumed you were making the same point Campbell does when recounting this episode from Plato’s Symposium, “which metaphorically describes an experience common to most humans in love.” What a pleasant surprise as you pivot to “the reveal,” enhancing and amplifying our understanding of what a symbol is and how it works. I have the R.E. Allen translation (copyright © 1991 Yale University Press), which renders σύμβολον (symbolon) as “token” rather than the more common “tally” or “indenture,” but sheds no additional light in the commentary – so your essay provides an authentic “aha!” moment.

    Though Aristophanes’ speech addresses the love that exists between individuals, it offers insight into the nature of Eros as well (which is the point of the Symposium). Of course, today, the term erotic is inseparable from physical sexuality in the public consciousness; the derivation you share for the term “symbol” would seem instead to to ground Eros in the Imaginal (to borrow Henry Corbin’s term), which brings me to this line of Aristophanes:

    “Eros then is a name for the desire and pursuit of wholeness” (Symposium 193a)

    This erotic “longing for completeness,” to borrow your phrase, reveals so much about the nature of symbols – but I wonder if it also provides a clue about how best to approach symbols.

    There are many works on folklore and mythology that treat the study of symbols as a process of systematization and classification. I don’t mean to suggest that’s not a worthwhile field of inquiry, but relying exclusively on that approach strikes me as akin to only studying butterflies that have been mounted in a display – tends to miss out on the life of the subject.

    I notice the thinkers and writers in this area whose work most appeals to me – e.g. Joseph Campbell, Heinrich Zimmer, Carl Jung, James Hillman, – are deeply in love with their subject. Would you mind taking a moment to discuss the role this love plays in the interpretation of symbols? Is it an improvement on scientific classification – or might Eros lead one astray, to arrive at vague and fuzzy conclusions?


    Hi Stephen,

    Great to be with you again here in COHO and looking forward to hearing from our conversational colleagues!

    Wow, right?  Plato’s Symposium weaves together ideas about love, the nature of the erotic, our relationships with each other and, as you suggest here, our relationship to work we love.

    I think I’d like to say more about the nature of the erotic and how it ties in to the work we love, but first, you’ve triggered another tangent. :^) This idea of doing the “work we love,” our task as a human being, the work we could characterize as the work that belongs to us almost as a foundation of our lives, is the Greek word ergon. When we think about work we love, it feels as if we are fulfilling our own deepest function as a human being, and when we do our work properly, when we fulfill our function properly, this pops up another critical term in Greek philosophy, arete.  Arete is typically translated as “virtue.”

    If I turn all of this back into English, Plato would say that we can live virtuously, like a virtuoso, when we fulfill our best function — do that work most appropriate to us.   And how do we do we become virtuosos of our own lives?

    We look for what’s been missing in our approach to life, and in ourselves.

    That’s a real Cook’s Tour, but you can see how this loops back into our discussion of symbols.

    I think it’s worthwhile having a look at how the erotic ties into this question.

    The definition of “erotic” has been diminished into mere sexual experience, but that’s not what it is.  At some point in anyone’s life, after a sufficient amount of sexual experience, you come to realize that some sexual experiences are erotic but that some are not. So what’s the erotic component here?  I think the best way to describe the erotic is the edginess, that sublime anxiety, that comes from intimacy. I like thinking about this as edginess because the primary symptom of the erotic is the feeling of being dragged out to the edge of who we think we are. Anyone who’s been truly in love has had the experience of thinking to themselves – and brace yourself for the cliché – “I never knew I could be like this.”

    It is terrifically windy, and anxiety producing, to be dragged out to the edge of who you think you are. The first thing you discover is that there is a lot more to you than you thought there was – a universe you have been missing.

    Plenty of perfectly sensible people will immediately retreat from this experience back into the comfort of their own, less anxious and more mundane, lives but — if we’re lucky — we discover that this razor’s edge is exhilarating and satisfies a need deeper than we knew we had.  It becomes a hunt, an adventure, to find those pieces of ourselves out there beyond who we think we are now.  And so, in a serious way, our understanding of ourselves and our lives, to satisfy Plato’s understanding of virtue, must always be symbolic – in the sense that we recognize our own incompleteness, look for what’s missing, and endure the sublime anxiety required.

    This wondering about things, committing ourselves to follow the things we love, out there beyond what we know, can easily lead us astray — but I think the greater danger lies in never leaving the house. :^)

    That should get us started!  I’m looking forward to hearing from everyone.



    Mark, first want to tell you how much I enjoyed your previous essay on “reflection.” “Lions, Tigers and Athena. Oh my!” Loved those perspectives! And the realm of “play,” which surrounds them!

    When you speak of “in completeness,” in your current essay the proverbial Joe Campbell metaphor of “the ladder against the wrong wall,” arose in my mind.
    Not sure if that fits…but the realization that comes when one keeps climbing and when they arrive at the top it’s there in reflection they find out they are still missing “that wholeness” that completeness, that “passion,” that bliss? That other half? Of being alive?

    You write: This wondering about things, committing ourselves to follow the things we love, out there beyond what we know, can easily lead us astray — but I think the greater danger lies in never leaving the house. :^)

    So since everything calls forth symbol and metaphor within the human life…

    I wonder if that Greek splitting in two…

    could also symbolize not only what one strives to attain in a lifetime but also a splitting of Self or loss of wholeness from perhaps even childhood or early years of youth?

    The Greek idea is born in an imaginal mythic realm but it seems that blueprint could also play out in a person’s own life?
    Starting out in wholeness but losing on the road along the way. Turning away from ones passions…maybe because of life choices or maybe because of necessity or the sorrows of the world.
    Or hardship. Or expectations. Duty.

    Or could that loss also represent a loss of that Wonder…that other part of the human spirit?
    Maybe even someone spends a lifetime learning to “divide themselves,” maybe it’s educated out of them? Who knows?   Then they spend the rest of their journey learning how to recover what they lost?
    The wholeness…the completeness…the passion…

    I am very  thankful that my parents who were all educators allowed for the playful and imaginal and reflective in my life. And supported my passions.
    So know I am lucky.

    Enjoyed your essay Mark! (Both essays)

    Thank you!



    One other thought…

    When you talk about retreating back into a comfort zone…or “not going out the door,”

    I also sense the challenge and call of the horizon so much a part of myths.
    But that challenge could be a trickster too (trickster as teacher) pulling one out of a comfort realm…

    Taking one to a place where New Perspectives exist and old ones might have to change…

    Maybe the horizon is too broad…the view too big…and the mystery too prominent both exhilarating by its Call but terrifying because it can’t be categorized by the mind…

    And there is safety in categorization but as many have pointed out here myths offer much more than a categorization of symbols and archetypes…they offer deeper reflection and awareness…sometimes they come both in the forms of heart Bodhisattva compassion and passion…

    And the trick is to walk past the Fear or at least not allow it to swallow one whole…or to become the creature of anger…

    And then to face the mystery with a calm mind and an open and adventurous heart to allow that passion and embrace of Wholeness to return.



    Hi Sunbug,

    Some great observations here….  right, isn’t it the case that, psychologically, we’re always calling out for completeness in some sense?

    There are a couple of dimensions to this.  From a more obvious point of view Aristophanes’ story simply describes the experience when you find a “true love.”  It’s like part of you was missing and you didn’t know it.  That’s the power of the Romantic image for sure.  But this also turns into a universal(-izable) principle, as you suggest.  This same romantic experience finds analogies in all the other “erotic” (in the way I’ve defined it here) pieces of life — uncovering pieces of our pscyhe that were missing or hadn’t been in play — or resolved, say .

    And so here too is the resistance to the erotic — a refusal to climb out to the edge of yourself so you see what you’re missing.  I think Campbell nailed this part in the Hero’s Journey.  It’s profoundly unsettling to challenge yourself: not merely what you believe but what you’ve taken to be your identity… we cling to that like nobody’s business… and hence the Buddhist observation about the relation between sorrow and the idea of personal identity.  The ego always finds ways to protect itself from change — or dissolution in the Other.

    To return this to blunt language, it’s always been amazing (but not surprising) that people can use sex to avoid intimacy.  It’s a weird analogy perhaps, but we can also use endless categorization and “analysis” in order to avoid meaningfulness.  Sometimes understanding our lives is infinitely easier than going out and getting the experience of living one.

    One of the underlying secrets here, seems to me, is that wonder is a way to endure the anxiety.  Wonder is, Aristotle noted, the beginning of all knowledge and the way we access the arche, the underlying principles of the universe.

    Thanks for these thought-provoking insights!


    Was going to post video but became stuck trying to pull up find the submit button for url field. But the subject is self evident (laugh)

    Wonder if this could be an example of bringing “Eros,” back to a broader perspective? To pull away from those misunderstandings that surround the word? Poor Eros!

    “Wanderlust,” Paul McCartney

    Yes Wander and Wonder I know the alliteration…

    But to me it’s interesting how adding Wander(Wonder) to the word “Lust,”

    almost transforms the word.

    The word by itself,  might conjure the song of Camelot, in May  (nothing wrong with that grin)

    But When the word is attached to Wander or Wonder to me it broadens the vision. One almost forgets that the word Lust is there. And it  releases,  the typical more narrow perception of Eros we conjure in our minds.

    But Passion, longing, dreams, exploration, desire of the heart…All there!









    And somehow this is perfect as is…

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