Remember George Lakoff and his wonderful book Metaphors We Live By? He and co-writer Mark Johnson argued that metaphors are not “merely” symbolic; instead, they shape and determine how we think. That’s why I’ve been playing with the metaphor of height, which appears with remarkable frequency in the increasingly tiresome theist-atheist debate.
The assumption is that what’s high is good and what’s low is bad. Thus evangelical Christians tend to raise their eyes skyward as they talk about (or to) God or heaven. This is a cultural remnant of the ancient sky god (Baal, Zeus, or Yahweh, depending on where you lived), shown in statuettes wielding a lightning bolt. It also happens to be a clear negation of the assumed monotheistic principle of God as universal and omnipresent, but as Lakoff showed, metaphors trump principle.
We have a long history of altars built on high places, presumably on the basis of “nearer my God to thee,” whatever god or gods were involved. We have steeples and spires, needles and minarets soaring skyward, from the Tower of Babel to Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa. (And if you happen to live in a valley, or worse, in a canyon, whether concrete or natural, you may find yourself “at the bottom of the heap.”)
The heavenly counterpart is of course hell as the underworld, stoked by fires of molten lava deep beneath the earth’s surface – the hadopelagic, from Hades, the deepest depths. But you don’t have to believe in heaven or hell to be mesmerized by height.
Some evolutionary biologists talk of humans as the “pinnacles” of creation (though I would have thought life as a pinnacle would be an alarmingly lonely business). Others see humans as a “higher order” of evolution (some of them even described as high-functioning).
We have upper and lower classes (both socioeconomic and biological), and upper and lower cases (of course God gets an upper case). We have high and low IQ, high times and low times, high achievement and low, hi-def, hi-fi, hi-res.
Phrases such as “a higher consciousness,” “higher math,” and a “higher power” come tripping off our tongues. As well as “beneath contempt,” and “above reproach.” Our spirits can sink, or soar. We get high, and feel low. And above all, as it were, we occasionally engage in high-level negotiations, rise above our emotions, and give each other a resounding high-five.
None of this would seem to bode well for any consideration in depth, but I intend to keep puzzling at it nonetheless. Maybe I need to climb to a mountaintop…
This was delicious Lesley.
And remember ups y-daisy when you fall?
One wants to start singing “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before.”
Lesley, this was just *super* (nudge, wink–get it?).
The high-low caste system you write about seems so appropriate and natural, I’d never questioned it before. Now I’m wracking my brain to find reversals (low=good/high=bad) and I’m stumped. (Stumps are, of course, both short and bad.)
This value system is built into the English language, isn’t it, and I wonder what that suggests–the Latin-derived word *positive* means ‘good’ as well as ‘measured increase.’ In every culture I can think of, MORE is better than LESS. (Only the minimalist says “less is more” and it still feels punitive to the majority of us.)
Are there any examples that challenge this? (All I can think of is “a DEEP sleep” and “IN love,” and “insider” (all positive) vs. “outsider/outcast” (negative).
*But the Latin root of ‘positive’ is neutral, meaning only placement or position. Hmmm….
Interesting thought process. I wonder how the Chinese think.
Ummm Lesley. ” High” and church steeples makes me remember
the church steeple in Port Gibson, MS. On the very top is a big golden hand with the index finger pointing upwards. Whether that is to outdo other nearby church steeples, or to get you that much closer to capital letter “G”. Or just a kindly reminder that Down means Burning Fires, I am not sure. Metaphors Be With You.
PS We met at Rio Caliente about 5 or so years ago.
Love that index finger! And like all who were there, I so miss Rio Caliente..
Interesting points made. Do you think it may have had something to do with Moses climbing a mountain to talk to God, or Prophet Muhammed meditating in a mountain cave to get divine inspiration?
Certainly — the idea of ascension — ascending a mountain, ascending into heaven (Mary, Elijah), flying (Muhammad on the night journey, Elijah in the chariot), and then all those angels with wings…
Lesle, I am not sure re if you believe in God
Interesting contemplation! Something’s are imbedded in our genes I believe. This concept is one of them just like fear of dark, white is better than black, yet most importantly very need to find God, and wanting to live eternally . This feelings are not thought by parents or society I believe we are born with them. They are in the blue print of us when we were born.
in india ,the metaphor of height as well as width is in currency – elections 2014, the contending individuals are the young prince ,the broom ,and the size of a chest , May 16 th will determine which metaphor has shaped our poltics for the next five years. The High and the Mighty , might have a Broom to contend with. The three party’s in this fray are the Indian National Congress/ the UPA the symbol is the Hand, the open palm ,the Bharatiya Janata Party/ the BJP ,symbol being the Lotus in bloom,and the Aam Admi Party/ AAP with the Broom as it’s symbol. The High/good is being Challenged by the width of the chest of its male representatives instead of the lotus blooming ,whilst the Low/ short is at the bottom with the Broom ,is considered to be the blue bottle in the dung heap ! It is indeed puzzling and we Indians need to negotiate the maze ,that we are in ,as well. Niloufer Gupta -email@example.com
Stephen Jay Gould, a remarkable evolutionary biologist, suggested that the very slow rate of maturation of human beings, from infancy to adulthood, necessitated that they look up to bigger parents, nurturers, protectors for a extended period, perhaps a quarter of a life span, and this was somehow imprinted and sublimated in religious thought.
Personally, I find that cathedral architecture, especially high stained glass windows, leads my eyes upwards is often moving and inspiring, with no connection to any theology.
This definitely makes sense.
‘Submergence’ definitely got me thinking about this ‘high’ versus ‘low’
hmmm! glad you are back on form…..thinking about this.
Could it be that taller (read higher) of the human species is stronger and therefore better in terms of biological evolution? And so we as a race have always aspired for taller/higher and not shorter/lower?
Hm, I don’t know — surely there are also survival advantages in staying low to the ground? And in being psychically ‘grounded’ — though that word, interestingly, is also a form of teenage punishment.
(W/r/t this, it took me a long time to get used to the American use of ‘dirt’ for what in the UK we called ‘earth’ or ‘soil.’)
hmm….this has really got me thinking…but can;t come up with anything. I mean how do we really know which way is up or down…space is infinite, all around us……
No, Lesley – find a teacher to show you how to go INSIDE ;
That will knock ALL concepts !
Did you know that South was placed up in the first maps such as by Al-Idrisi?
But then the Europeans made North as being “Up” and South as being “Down” in order to make North appear to be better because of this metaphor of “up” being better.
Thanks Omer — I had no idea and will check it out. Fascinating how such things get ‘decided.’