Levels of meaning




Exoteric                                 -                      Esoteric




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



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