Being a highly social species, we humans crave communication. We find it necessary to tell each other about danger and safety. Humans tell one another stories about external events and share reflections about thoughts in our minds.
We are curious creatures who like to explore frontiers, tell each other about those frontiers, and eventually civilize those frontiers. In the beginning, the frontiers were lands and waters. The desire to control frontiers eventually expanded into other people’s minds by the invention of religion and symbols.
Religion has been useful to explain things and frontiers that do not yet have rational explanations. Symbols, working in parallel with religion provided graphic means with which to create cultures. Whether the symbols are pictographs like Egyptian hieroglyphics, or abstract combinations of straight and squiggly lines as in modern written languages, the symbolism has become embedded in the cultures, Zeitgeists, and our minds.
The symbols are taught to us when we’re very young. The result being that using and interpreting symbols becomes automatic and subconscious. For instance, reading these words on your device did not require you to struggle. You don’t need to consult a teacher or scribe to interpret the squiggly lines of this blog post. You simply look at the letters and words written in the English language and you derive some data from them.
Since we speakers and readers of English use the symbols of the Roman Alphabet all the time, we give little or no thought to these symbols. Many of us don’t even know our alphabet is called the Roman (or Latin) Alphabet. It’s just an integral part of our mental software that was “installed” when we were toddlers.
To illustrate the concept of abstract symbols in the dissemination of concepts, we can look at Russia’s Cyrillic script–the Russian Alphabet (русский алфавит). Unless you’re familiar with Greek, Eastern European languages, or Russian, the word “хлеб” looks like meaningless gibberish. Actually, хлеб is pronounced chlyeb and translates into the English word “bread”.
Speakers and readers of the русский алфавит see the world through the cultural norms framed by the language, just as we see the world as it is filtered by the English language. Students of languages know that not every word or phrase can be literally translated from one language to another. The different shades of meaning are products of culture. This is one reason why students of language find languages so utterly fascinating.
Of course, we find ourselves reading and using a non-English set of symbols each day–numbers and other mathematical symbols. Children learn basic numbers and arithmetic at around the same ages we are indoctrinated into the English language. Indeed, each language has their own names for numbers. In English we have: one, two, three…, while in Russian there are: Одной, два, три… pronounced “ahdnyee, dvah, tree…”.
The point is, all of these squiggles, lines, and pictographs have great power to people who have learned about them. They are meaningless to people who have not learned about them. To people who do not understand English, the English letters and words written in Roman script look like gobbledygook in much the same way that spoken English sounds like gibberish to them.
It is when we re-view symbols from this basic, elementary level that we can understand why symbols have such incredible power over individuals and the populace at large. The transmission and interpretation of these abstract shapes is how we communicate social norms and beliefs.
With these basic facts in mind, it’s easy to understand why people who possess more knowledge and wisdom about language have a great deal of power at their fingertips. For example, the scribes of Ancient Egypt possessed great power and influence, sometimes surpassing that of the Pharaohs.
The best leaders are those who are as knowledgeable or more so than their scribes. The worst leaders are those who think they are wise, but whose scribes outdo them on nearly every level. In that case, the ignorant leader is lead around like a bull with a ring in his nose by his more knowledgeable peers. Tyrants are envious of knowledge so they defame smart people and destroy the intelligentsia.
By looking at the nuts and bolts of our culture–the symbols–we can more easily analyze and utilize the grand art of communication. Knowing about the immense power of symbols from the ground up helps us understand the strengths and weaknesses of our civilizations. We are then left with the question of if one will ethically utilize such power.
To better utilize the power of symbols is a good reason to continue our education throughout our lives.