Definition and Examples of Symbolism in Rhetoric

A red rose
The "symbolic potency" of the rose, says Andrew Graham-Dixon, "has been somewhat diluted by over-use".

Gerhard Schulz / Getty Images

Symbolism (pronounced SIM-buh-liz-em) is the use of one object or action (a symbol) to represent or suggest something else. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously defined "true symbolism" as "that in which the particular represents the general."

Broadly, the term symbolism may refer to the symbolic meaning or the practice of investing things with a symbolic meaning. Though often associated with religion and literature, symbolism is prevalent in everyday life. "The use of symbolism and language," says Leonard Shengold, "makes our minds flexible enough to grasp, master, and communicate thoughts and feelings" (Delusions of Everyday Life, 1995).

In Dictionary of Word Origins (1990), John Ayto points out that etymologically "a symbol is something 'thrown together.' The word's ultimate source is Greek sumballein . . .. The notion of 'throwing or putting things together' led on to the notion of 'contrast,' and so sumballein came to be used for 'compare.' From it was derived sumbolon, which denoted an 'identifying token'—because such tokens were compared with a counterpart to make sure they were genuine--and hence an 'outward sign' of something."

Examples and Observations

  • "[T]he symbolic elements in life have a tendency to run wild, like the vegetation in a tropical forest. The life of humanity can easily be overwhelmed by its symbolic accessories. . . . Symbolism is no mere idle fancy or corrupt degeneration; it is inherent in the very texture of human life. Language itself is a symbolism." (Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. Barbour-Page Lectures, 1927)

The Rose as a Symbol

  • "Pick the rose. It used to symbolise the Virgin Mary and, before her, Venus, the pricking of its barbs being likened to the wounds of love. The association still survives in the common meaning of a bunch of roses ('I love you'). Flowers might be delicate and short-lived but they have acquired a vast range of unpredictably durable meanings, a whole bouquet of significances: affection, virtue, chastity, wantonness, religious steadfastness, transience. The modern multiplication of floral emblems and trademarks has, however, taken its toll. When the red rose can stand for the Labour Party, a box of chocolates and Blackburn Rovers FC, it seems fair to say that its symbolic potency has been somewhat diluted by over-use." (Andrew Graham-Dixon, "Say It With Flowers." The Independent, September 1, 1992)
  • "The rose . . . has collected around itself many layers of meanings, some of which contradict or challenge each other. As associated with the Virgin Mary, the rose symbolizes chastity and purity, while as associated with sexuality in medieval romance literature, it symbolizes carnality and sexual bliss, its tightly furled bud a favorite symbol of female virginity, its full-blown blossom a symbol of sexual passion.
    "Multiple meanings may jostle for dominance around a symbol, or, in contrast, a symbol may over time, come to possess a single, fixed sense. Symbols, therefore, can enrich language by bringing it an array of different possible meanings, or they can reinforce a single meaning, as with images that constantly dehumanize." (Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills, At War With Metaphor: Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror. Lexington Books, 2008)

Jung on the Range of Potential Symbols

  • "The history of symbolism shows that everything can assume symbolic significance: natural objects (like stones, plants, animals, men, mountains and valleys, sun and moon, wind, water, and fire), or man-made things (like houses, boats, or cars), or even abstract forms (like numbers, or the triangle, the square, and the circle). In fact, the whole cosmos is a potential symbol." (Carl Gustav Jung, Man and His Symbols, 1964)

Real and Symbolic Suns

  • "Once when I was analyzing the symbolism of sun and moon in Coleridge's poem, 'The Ancient Mariner,' a student raised this objection: 'I'm tired of hearing about the symbolic sun in poems, I want a poem that has the real sun in it.'
    "Answer: If anybody ever turns up with a poem that has the real sun in it, you'd better be about ninety-three million miles away. We were having a hot summer as it was and I certainly didn't want anyone bringing the real sun into the classroom.
    "True, a distinction could be made here corresponding to the difference between 'concept' and 'idea' in the Kantian terminology. The notion of sun qua sun, as the sheerly physical object that we grow our crops by, would be a 'concept.' And the notion of the sun as 'avenger' . . . would carry us into the realm of 'ideas.' The student was correct in feeling that a stress upon 'symbolism' can blunt our concern with the sheerly literal meaning of a term (as when critics become so involved with the 'symbolism' of a story that they ignore its nature simply as a story)." (Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. University of California Press, 1970)

The Symbolism of the Filibuster

  • "The filibuster has at times symbolized, justifiably or not, the courageous stand of principled individuals against a corrupt or compromised majority. That symbolism was captured in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the classic Frank Capra film in which James Stewart plays a naïve newcomer who holds the Senate hostage for longer even than Strom Thurmond did, before collapsing in fatigue and triumph." (Scott Shane, "Henry Clay Hated It. So Does Bill Frist." The New York Times, November 21, 2004)

The Symbolism of Book-Burning

  • "As an act of wanton barbarism, there is little to rival the symbolism of setting fire to a book. It is, therefore, genuinely shocking to learn that book-burning is taking place in south Wales. Pensioners in Swansea are reportedly buying books from charity shops for just a few pence each and taking them home for fuel." (Leo Hickman, "Why Are They Burning Books in South Wales?" The Guardian, January 6, 2010)

The Dumber Side of Symbolism

  • Butt-head: Look, this video has symbols. Huh-huh-huh.
    Yeah, is that what it means when they say "videos have symbolism"?
    Huh-huh-huh. You said "ism." Huh-huh-huh-ha-huh.
    ("Customers Suck." Beavis and Butt-Head, 1993)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Symbolism in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Definition and Examples of Symbolism in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Symbolism in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).