Metaphor is a primary way through which we understand the world; we cannot really know what anything really is except by way of comparing it with something else.
Aristotle observed: “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.” That is why, of course, we rate poets so highly. As preeminent writers, they more than any other human beings have the gift of coining (there, another metaphor) fresh images expressing the similarity in the dissimilar. In other words, they expand our understanding of reality in new and luminous ways.
Essentially, using metaphors is the way we linguistically and conceptually “map” (to use another metaphor; I shall stop now drawing attention to this ubiquitous phenomenon) our reality: It provides a way of seeing that enables “things” to be not just inert things—discrete objects out there, stacked in their isolations—but meaningful “somethings,” which exist in dynamic relationships of similarity and dissimilarity with other somethings.
But some metaphors seem to—and do—assume a kind of principal importance in our thinking and so in our understanding of the world. One such metaphor—and symbol—is the metaphor of the garden.
The Garden: A Symbol, a Metaphor
The importance of the garden as a way we understand the world cannot be overstated. We find in all religions, past and present, traces of the garden: the Garden of the Hesperides where Zeus married Hera, the Pure Land or Western Paradise of Buddhism, the Zen dry gardens, and of course more besides, including the Garden of Eden.
Catholic priest and author Timothy Radcliffe shares a Chinese proverb on this topic: “If a man wishes to be happy for a week, he should take a wife; if he plans happiness for a month, he must kill a pig; but if he desires happiness forever, he should plant a garden.” (I am assuming the same is true for women, naturally!) But the point is that gardens are inescapably connected in our minds with paradise and states of bliss.
Now, why do I go on about metaphor here when clearly, in the first instance, it would appear that gardens are symbols? Well, the garden is a symbol, but it also functions as a metaphor because we are always using it to compare (similarities) and contrast (dissimilarities) with aspects of our reality.
Perhaps, to make this clearer, I should suggest that the greatest symbol of all is light. But immediately once we have the idea of light, we cannot help but reflect on its absence or its opposite. Indeed, we see through light, and so metaphorically we understand also that we can be “enlightened.” The symbol, then, because it is so primary to our consciousness, becomes almost infinite in its metaphorical applications. And so with the garden.
In the Beginning and Our End Goal
If we return now to the starting point of Western civilization, we find a garden. It all started in a garden, the Garden of Eden. What does this mean? In the beginning, it means that human beings were—if we take the nuances from the original ancient languages—in an enclosure, a park, a place planted with trees, flowers, and herbs. In brief, a paradise where security was unquestionable, where life simply grew in its own luxuriant splendor, and where all the animals were named and under the direct control of human beings.
The thing about a garden is that it is not a wilderness, not a chaos, and not a dangerous and shifting setting, but a place of security, stability, organization, purpose, and peace. This last word, “peace,” is very important as “peace of mind” is often considered to be the ultimate goal of all our strivings.
Often, too, we focus on the wrong thing to bring us this peace of mind: If only we had enough money, or power, or knowledge, then we would feel secure and this would bring us peace of mind. All the true spiritual traditions deny that money, power, and knowledge will bring us peace. On the contrary, they will entrap and destroy our very souls if we allow them to take us over: Think Dr. Faustus!
At the same time, those same spiritual traditions also assert that there is a Nirvana, or Heaven, or place where we can find the peace that passes all understanding. And we understand as well that where we are now is not where we should be. At some deep psychological and spiritual level, we feel that the world is not ideal, but that it should be; we should be in the garden.
Interestingly, it is not just religious or spiritual people who feel this. Atheists and Enlightenment thinkers do so too. To take the most famous of all, Voltaire ended his novel “Candide” with the injunction “One must cultivate one’s own garden.” Notice that the summit of Enlightenment wisdom is to be found in a garden: something local and near, something we have created, and not just a patch of land, a remote mountainside, or a valley or an enclave. But a garden.
This looking back to the garden is effectively looking back to perfection that we wish to regain.
The Modern Approach
At the beginning of the 20th century, the writer James Allen stated in his book “As a Man Thinketh”: “Man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must and will bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed-seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.”
This text proleptically anticipated the whole personal development and human potential movement of the late 20th century. We now have—to take just one example from a plethora—tools like Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that aim to reprogram the mind in order for it to be more effective, more useful, and ultimately more at peace with its own functioning. The tool, then, helps us “cultivate” our own garden of the mind. NLP does this partially through the “Linguistic” component of its process. Linguistic? Through words and how they impact us and others.
Since our Fall from The Garden, of course, we have found that peace of mind extremely elusive. We need to keep in mind at this point that the “Fall” is not an exclusive Judaic or Christian construct, a delusion that has falsely hypnotized the Western mind. For when we think about it, all serious religions believe in the Fall, or their versions of it; all religions acknowledge the imperfection of the world and desire to return to that state of paradise they consciously or intuitively recognize as being our real destiny.
Indeed, the word “religion” itself means, etymologically, to bind, or to discipline oneself so that one attains the paradisal state we were meant to have. Instead of evolution (though I do not deny aspects of its theory) and simplistic ideas of “progress,” we know that there has been some aboriginal calamity that wrecked us all, and we want to know the way back.
But, of course, the cherubim with flaming swords bar our access. And instead of peace of mind, we find weeds and thorns and a wilderness all around us—certainly no garden.
Paradise on This Side of Heaven
Humans ever since have been trying to re-create this garden, this true garden where they can be and feel themselves to be their true selves. There is a hankering, a longing for it, which is perfectly captured at the end of Milton’s famous poem “Paradise Lost” (Book 12, lines 641–5):
“They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;”
We find, too, in Dante, that at the top of the Mount of Purgatory (Canto 28 onward) the Earthly Paradise has not been lost but is still there as the critical exit point, as it were, to heaven itself.
That reminds one of how the ancient Greeks had the Elysian Fields for the dead, although some—like Herakles—might attain heaven itself. In ancient Egyptian lore, the paradise was known as the Field of Reeds, which the scholar Jacobus Van Dijk describes as “idealized farmland,” that is, a place where life is cultivated, grows, and is purposeful. A field, then, like a garden, is not a wilderness but a place that is measured, contained, and purposeful.
And this leads on to the observation that we certainly do not lack those who have deliberately sought to create and re-create literal gardens of Eden here on earth: Think of Nebuchadnezzar II’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon or in 18th-century England, Capability Brown’s hedge maze at Blenheim Palace, to name but two, albeit in time these gardens all decay.
But if we think for a moment about James Allen’s quotation, the real gardens we want are in the mind. Here, I think, we find the greatest achievements of humanity, for surely that is what the arts are. Great art is when (to mention just three disciplines) the colors, or the sounds, or the words become gardens—metaphorically speaking—in which we can refresh our thoughts, our feelings, and our spirits through contemplation and participation in these works.
In real art there is measure, containment, and purpose: The colors have patterns, the sounds have harmonics, and the words are structured in such a way as to be the very opposite of random. Indeed, in this last case, a million monkeys with a million typewriters hitting the keys for a million years would not come close to producing one page of Shakespeare’s collected works.
In this world today of increasing chaos and randomness, a focus on gardens and especially those of the mind—art—would not go amiss. We strive, we seek, we find … busyness, and so miss the mark of what a great life might be. So far as this world is concerned, the garden is the ultimate symbol of where satisfaction may be found. And if we extend its meaning metaphorically, we need to be demanding great art from our artists, composers, and poets so that we might find refreshment from all the weariness without and about us.
James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.