Levels of meaning

Exoteric        -          Esoteric
Profane         -          Sacred  
Many            -          Few  

Unsophisticated minds will interpret things in unsophisticated ways. Information is interpreted at the level of the recipient, meaning that something complex and nuanced ('Level 4') is often received as simple and schematic ('Level 1'). The detail is removed, leaving only broad strokes. What emerges in one mind as an intricate conundrum, may be interpreted by another as little more than a basic affirmation of crude prejudices. 

Sophisticated minds often fail to consider this when transmitting their thoughts. Many will make broad prescriptions, without thinking how these prescriptions will be interpreted by the culture at large. Most people are looking for simple programmes that they can simply 'run', without the need to expend the kind of time and energy that complexity generally demands. 

Modernity insists on a radical free-flow of information, and so anything that may dam this flow is condemned or removed. The strata of tradition is reduced to rubble strewn along a plane, and all levels of meaning collapsed to a baseline; one meaning for everyone, everywhere.  

Globalism, attuned to universals, views translation as a superficial process - a mere re-skinning. Localism, attuned to context, recognises that translation always involves loss. Something that is 'high-context', like a ritual or ceremony, requires a deep grounding in the relevant tradition in order to tease out its various implicit and explicit meanings.

Girard: Over time, as society scales up and becomes more complex, all things are exposed. At scale, the esoteric domain becomes untenable. "The revelation may be slow, but it is not reversible."

Those of us living in a Western culture can today best understand a Nhunggabarra story in terms of four levels of meaning […]

A Nhunggabarra person, undergoing the traditional education, would gradually learn more and more meanings. Not everybody would learn them all; how many meanings one learned depended on one’s role.

The four-level model […] meant that all stories could be told freely to the whole community; the four levels and the education process ensured that each person understood the story on the level that fitted their individual level of development.

Children would understand the first level and have their curiosity satisfied, while the older people could reflect on the higher levels of meaning. And everybody, young and old, would enjoy the drama and the excitement of the performance.

First level

The first level is the text itself […] This level answers some of the fundamental questions that little children living in a natural environment probably pestered their parents with: why does the crow have black feathers and white eyes?

Typically, the first level is also exciting and entertaining.

Second level

The second level of meaning concerns the relationships between the people within the community. The second level meaning does not come straight from the story and it was never told explicitly. You had to extract the meaning as part of your education and you had to have some pre-knowledge about the law to be able to do this.

This level therefore remained hidden for non-initiated people.

Third level

The third level concerns the relationship between your own community and the larger environment - that is, the earth and other Aboriginal communities. Again, the third level does not come straight from the story and it is never told explicitly. You have to pull out the meaning yourself and you have to hold some pre-knowledge about the law.

Fourth level

Many, but not all, stories had a fourth level. The fourth level taught spiritual action and psychic skills; it was more doing than talking and listening. The fourth level included practice, ceremonies and experiences, which gave access to the special esoteric knowledge hidden in the story.

The wiringins were the only ones who learned the fourth level of the stories. 

They passed through very striking ceremonies and had experiences which gave them access to a special body of spiritual and esoteric knowledge. They had insight into the minds of their fellows, and by observation they built up a wealth of information about the members of their community, which they could draw upon when needed […] The wiringins were […] ‘men of high degree’.

[Karl-Erik Sveiby & Tex Skuthorpe]
Treading Lightly, p. 42, 45, 48-51, 148

Benjamin Boyce: Do you think that that's a fault in certain modes of discourse, that they try to constrain thought or sense-making to one level?

Jonathan Pageau: Yeah, definitely. I think that the levelling of thought has been one of the problems of the modern age. We see everything at the same level.

BB: What is it about modernity that has led us to this levelling of thought?

JP: I think it is, in a certain manner, the fact that scientific thinking has taken over the horizon of thought, and people want to approach everything as if it were equivalent to a scientific problem.

If you want to think at different levels you can't level everything like that, you have to be able to see hierarchies of purpose [...] hierarchies of beings even.

There's so much going on right now which is good - the fact that everybody is trying to talk about emergence, complex systems - all of this stuff is showing that the simplistic levelling of thought has run its course, and now we have to understand that the world has levels and manifests itself in hierarchies of beings, and we can't avoid that.

[Benjamin Boyce & Jonathan Pageau]
'Masculine Actualities, Feminine Possibilities'

Are they new friends of 'truth', these coming philosophers? In all probability: for all philosophers have hitherto loved their truths. But certainly they will not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, and also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be a truth for everyman, which has hitherto been the secret desire and hidden sense of all dogmatic endeavours. 

'My judgement is my judgement: another cannot easily acquire a right to it' - such a philosopher of the future may perhaps say. One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with many. 

‘Good' is no longer good when your neighbour takes it into his mouth. And how could there exist a 'common good'! The expression is a self-contradiction: what can be common has ever but little value. In the end it must be as it is and has always been: great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare. 

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 43

One does not only wish to be understood when one writes; one wishes just as surely not to be understood. It is not by any means necessarily an objection to a book when anyone finds it impossible to understand: perhaps that was part of the author's intention - he did not want to be understood by just "anybody." 

All the nobler spirits and tastes select their audience when they wish to communicate; and choosing that, one at the same time erects barriers against "the others." 

All the more subtle laws of any style have their origin at this point: they at the same time keep away, create a distance, forbid "entrance," understanding, as said above-while they open the ears of those whose ears are related to ours.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 381

It may be observed in passing that the danger of the misdirection of certain kinds of knowledge, of which this last is a very clear example, accounts for much of the secrecy that is quite natural in a normal civilization; but the moderns show themselves to be entirely incapable of understanding this, for they commonly mistake what is really a measure designed as far as possible to prevent the misuse of knowledge for a desire to monopolize that knowledge.

[René Guénon] 
The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p.189

Now, whatever is sensuously-near is understandable for all, and therefore of all the Cultures that have been, the Classical is the most popular, and the Faustian the least popular, in its expressions of life-feeling. 

A creation is “popular" that gives itself with all its secrets to the first comer at the first glance, that incorporates its meaning in its exterior and surface. 

In any Culture, that element is “popular" which has come down unaltered from primitive states and imaginings, which a man understands from childhood without having to master by effort any really novel method or standpoint — and, generally, that which is immediately and frankly evident to the senses, as against that which is merely hinted at and has to be discovered - by the few, and sometimes the very, very few. 

The commonplace eliminates differences of spiritual breadth as well as depth between man and man, while the esoteric emphasizes and strengthens them […] There are popular ideas, works, men and landscapes […] 

The Classical geometry is that of the child, that of any layman - Euclid’s Elements are used in England as a school-book to this day. The workaday mind will always regard this as the only true and correct geometry. All other kinds of natural geometry that are possible (and have in fact, by an immense effort of overcoming the popular-obvious, been discovered) are understandable only for the circle of the professional mathematicians. 

Everything that is Classical is comprehensible in one glance, be it the Doric temple, the statue, the Polis, the cults; backgrounds and secrets there are none [...] Consider what it means that every one of our epoch-making works of poetry, policy and science has called forth a whole literature of explanations, and not indubitably successful explanations at that. 

Herein lies the explanation of a set of phenomena which we have hitherto been inclined to treat - in a vein of moral philosophy, or, better, of melodrama - as weaknesses common to humanity, but which are in fact symptoms of the Western life-feeling, viz., the "misunderstood” artist, the poet "left to starve," the "derided discoverer," the thinker who is “centuries in advance of his time" and so on. These are types of an esoteric Culture. 

Every high creator in Western history has in reality aimed, from first to Last at something which only the few could comprehend. 

We find everywhere in the Western what we find nowhere in the Classical - the exclusive form. Whole periods - for instance, the Provençal Culture and the Rococo - are in the highest degree select and uninviting, their ideas and forms having no existence except for a small class of higher men. 

On the contrary, every Attic burgher belonged to the Attic Culture, which excluded nobody; and consequently, the distinctions of deeps and shallows, which are so decisively important for us, did not exist at all for it. For us, popular and shallow are synonymous - in art as in science - but for Classical man it was not so.

Consider our sciences too. Every one of them, without exception, has besides its elementary groundwork certain "higher" regions that are inaccessible to the layman - symbols, these also, of our will-to-infinity and directional energy. The public for whom the last chapters of up-to-date physics have been written numbers at the utmost a thousand persons, and certain problems of modern mathematics are accessible only to a much smaller circle still - for our popular science is without value, détraquée, and falsified. 

We have not only an art for artists, but also a mathematic for mathematicians, a politic for politicians (of which the profanum vulgus of newspaper-readers has not the smallest inkling, whereas Classical politics never got beyond the horizon of the Agora), a religion for the “religious genius" and a poetry for philosophers. 

Indeed, we may take the craving for wide effect as a sufficient index by itself of the commencing and already perceptible decline of Western science […] The few sciences that have kept the old fineness, depth, and energy of conclusion and deduction and have not been tainted with journalism […] address themselves to a very narrow and chosen band of experts. 

And it is this expert, and his opposite the layman, that are totally lacking in the Classical life, wherein everyone knows everything. For us, the polarity of expert and layman has all the significance of a high symbol, and when the tension of this distance is beginning to slacken, there the Faustian life is fading out.

[Oswald Spengler]
The Decline of the West, p. 326-9

In Islam, long before nihilism, the initiatic Order of the Ismaelis used the very phrase “Nothing exists, everything is permitted." But it applied in this order exclusively to the upper grades of the hierarchy.

Before attaining these grades and having the right to adopt this truth for oneself, one had to pass four preliminary grades that involved, among other things, a rule of unconditional, blind obedience, taken to limits that are almost inconceivable for the Western mentality.

For example, at a word from the Grand Master one had to be prepared to throw one's life away without any reason or purpose.

[Julius Evola]
Ride the Tiger, p. 62

It is well known that Christian and Catholic attitudes are characterized by the antithesis between “flesh" and spirit, by a theological hatred for sex, due to the illegitimate extension to ordinary life of a principle valid at best for a certain type of ascetic life.

Not being able to ban sexuality altogether, Catholicism has tried to reduce it to a mere biological fact, allowing its use in marriage only for procreation. Unlike certain ancient traditions, Catholicism has recognized no higher value, not even a potential one, in the sexual experience taken in itself.

As a whole, whether through its conception of sexuality, or through its profanation of the marriage rite as something put in everyone's reach and even rendered obligatory for any Catholic couple, religious marriage itself is reduced to the mere religious sanction of a profane, unbreakable contract.

Thus the Catholic precepts about the relations between the sexes reduce everything to the plane of a restrained, bourgeois mediocrity: tamed, procreative animality within conformist limits […]

[Julius Evola]
Ride the Tiger, p.190

The ability to see the Great Truth of the hierarchic structure of the world, which makes it possible to distinguish between higher and lower Levels of Being, is one of the indispensable conditions of understanding. Without it, it is not possible to find out where everything has its proper and legitimate place.

Everything, everywhere, can be understood only when its Level of Being is fully taken into account. Many things are true at a low Level of Being and become absurd at a higher level, and of course vice versa.

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.22-23

Within the layers of an Indigenous language there are ways of speaking that will only be used on ceremonial occasions. Linguists have noted, for example, that the size of the vocabulary of what they call a shaman is considerably larger than the vocabularies used by other people within the same society.

Certain words have great power and should never be spoken unless the right people are present in a circle to contain the energies that circulate, evoked by that particular sound vibration.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.225

One old woman told me how an Elder would begin telling a story in the evening and continue right through to the following morning. People in those days, she said, were supposed to show respect and pay attention.

Of course, with a teaching that lasted that long she could not remember everything that happened; rather, she was expected to take only that part of the teaching that was appropriate to her level of understanding. As she grew up she would hear the story again and again, each time taking something more from it.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.73

The Ceremony accomplishes much more than the bringing together of the two biological elements; the Ceremony orders life as well. The Ceremony is high context.

A high-context communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message … The level of context determines everything about the nature of the communication and is the foundation on which all subsequent behavior rests (including symbolic behavior). (Hall 1977)

[Claire R. Farrer]
‘Singing for Life: The Mescalero Apache Girls’ Puberty Ceremony’, Betwixt and Between, p.257

The difficulty implied in the contradiction between the necessarily secret character of the philosophic teaching and the necessarily public character of publications was overcome of a very simple discovery.

If a man tells a charming story, most people will enjoy the story—the imitated actions or events, the imitated landscape, the imitated speeches of the characters, and even the imitation itself—but only a minority of readers will recover from the charm, reflect upon the story and discover the teaching which it silently conveys. Silent or secret teaching is then certainly possible. That it is an actual fact of the past is shown, above all, by the stories and histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato.

One may add that this kind of literature disappeared only at a rather recent date: its disappearance was simultaneous with the disappearance of persecution, just as its reappearance is simultaneous with the reappearance of persecution.

It would, however, betray too low a view of the philosophical writers of the past if one assumed that they concealed their thoughts merely for fear of persecution or of violent death. They concealed the truth from the vulgar also because they considered the vulgar to be unfit to digest the truth: the large majority of men, the philosophers of the past thought, would be deprived of the very basis of their morality if they were to lose their beliefs.

[Leo Strauss]
'The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon'

For Strauss as for Nietzsche, the truth of mimesis and of the founding murder is so shocking that most people, in all times and places, simply will not believe it.

The world of the Enlightenment may have been based on certain misconceptions about the nature of humanity, but the full knowledge of these misconceptions can remain the province of a philosophical elite. The successful popularization of such knowledge would be the only thing to fear and it was in this context that the Straussian, Pierre Manent, launched a ferocious attack on Girard’s theory: “If human ‘culture’ is essentially founded on violence, then [Girard] can bring nothing other than the destruction of humanity in the fallacious guise of non-violence.”

Girard, in turn, would counter that salvation is no longer to be found in philosophical reticence, because there will come a day when there is no esoteric knowledge left:

"I do think it is necessary for us to engage in the discourse we have been pursuing here. But if we had chosen otherwise, others would have taken up this discourse. And there will be others, in any case, who will repeat what we are in the process of saying and who will advance matters beyond what we have been able to do.

Yet books themselves will have no more than minor importance; the events within which such books emerge will be infinitely more eloquent than whatever we write and will establish truths we have difficulty describing and describe poorly, even in simple and banal instances. They are already very simple, indeed too simple to interest our current Byzantium, but these truths will become simpler still; they will soon be accessible to anyone."

For Girard, the knowledge of the founding murder is driven by the historical working of the Judeo-Western revelation. The revelation may be slow (because it contains a message that humans do not wish to hear), but it is not reversible. For this reason, the decisive difference between Girard and Strauss (or Nietzsche) centers on the question of historicism.

[Peter Thiel]
‘The Straussian Moment’

Related posts:-
The Pyramid
Abstract / Concrete
Centre / Periphery
The Colour Spiral