Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part V


That there are precisely four elements is hardly a coincidence, and this brings me to another important datum of cosmology, that is, number.

Number is surely the most inspired and momentous answer posited by the Pre-Socratics in their attempts to identify the single hidden essence or Nature of which the manifold world is constituted. In view of what has already been said about the religious and mythological afflatus of the “physical” elements, it is hardly surprising that Thales should have nominated the maternal and life-giving Water, Anaximenes the inspiriting Air, Heracleitus the celestial Fire, or Anaxagoras the Divine Mind, as the hidden, universal Physis of which everything is made.

But it was Pythagoras who answered number, which he held to be the key to the mystery of the cosmos. As Aristotle records in his Metaphysics, “The Pythagoreans…took numbers to be the whole of reality, the elements of numbers to be the elements of all existing things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.”

One could hardly exaggerate the importance of Pythagoras’ postulate for the history of science. Within two centuries it was to give rise, in the hands of Archimedes, to the science of mechanics; and at the inception of empirical science’s modern age, Galileo took it as the starting point for his own work:

Philosophy is written in the great book which is ever before our eyes – I mean the universe – but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.

The belief that numbers are endowed with divine power was fully accepted by the Fathers of the Church, who inherited it from the Middle and Neoplatonic schools in which the spirit of Pythagoras and Plato lived on. With Plato, St. Augustine regarded numbers as the thoughts of God. “The Divine Wisdom”, he writes, “is reflected in the numbers impressed on all things”. Numbers are the divine archetypes of which the visible things of the universe are copies. The construction and arrangement of the world is based on these eternal numerical paradigms, and so the science of numbers is the key to the understanding of the physical world.

Numbers, then, must be considered with reverent attention, for he who can read them enters into the Divine Mind. For Christian theologians, expositors, and artists, as we will see, mystic numbers are occulted beneath the visibilia of both the book of the world and the world of the book.


One and the Divine Monad

Plato’s Timaeus is full of arcane teaching about the creation and composition of the cosmos in accordance with certain mystical ratios and proportions, but his involutions are much too complicated to unwind here. Let me do, then, what I once did in the classroom, when I foolishly ventured to explain, extemporaneously, the symbolic meanings with which the numbers from one to twelve are freighted.

One is the number of the Godhead and the entire divine order, the unitary and plenary Source from which all multiplicity proceeds. As Pythagoras points out, it is not therefore a number at all, since number requires divisibility and multiplicity. One is the indivisible, the individual, the integer; if it could be divided, one would have more than one. Two is thus the first number.

One is indivisible in the way in which the incorporeal and eternal are indivisible. For multiplicity, you need countable bodies. The Neoplatonic name for the incorporeal and eternal God is thus The One, in whom all things originally spiritually inhered without division.

In Plato’s First World (the celestial World of Ideas), all potential things pre-exist in incorporeal unity, inmerged and as yet undifferentiated in the unitary Mind of God. The creation of the material universe – the world of multiplicity – involved its tragic breaking away from and fracturing of the Divine Monad, which brought into being the Other, the second thing, and all the numbers of space and time. The religious quest for salvation thus amounts to the return and re-absorption of the world and the soul back into the Divine Monad, propelled by that yearning for what is called the Unio mystica.

The number One is therefore also in the Platonic sense the number of absolute reality and truth. (The word, “absolute”, that is, literally, “undissolved” and “indissoluable” means, in essence, “undivided”.) The Platonic Idea is the One Essence that inheres undivided in the multiplicity of particular things. If you look around my house, for instance, you will see a three-legged object of Mahogany, a four-legged one of Cherry, and a five-legged one of Chestnut. But they are all tables, all informed by the one Idea – with apologies to Plato – of Tableness or Tableosity.

Similarly, there are many particular incarnations and examples of beauty, as you remember from the Symposium, but only one Archetype of Beauty Absolute, perfect, incorruptible, and eternal, of which all beautiful things are corrupt copies, and in which they commonly but only incompletely participate.

All sensible manifestations of the Ideas are merely derivative, false, and deceptive imitations, copies, or images. They are imperfect “duplications”, and their falsehood or “duplicity” resides in the danger of taking them for the archetype, the real thing.

Which brings me to the number Two.


Duality, Duplicity, Opposition, and Consciousness

The English words “duplication” and “duplicity” come, as you know, from the Latin duo, Two. Two is thus the number of appearance. In myth and literature, the arch-vice of hypocrisy, called Fraus or False-Seeming in the Middle Ages, is typically characterized by the number Two.

The goddess Fortuna, for example, is two-faced, to represent the goods and pleasures of this world, which deceptively promise happiness by falsely imitating the true and lasting goodness and beatitude that reside only in the invisible order of the soul and the Divine. As Andreas Capellanus points out, Cupid, the great god of cupiditas, is Fortuna’s cousin, and is also two-faced.

Spenser’s character Duessa pretends to be all holiness and virtue, and in that disguise, she is mistaken by the guileless Redcrosse Knight as Una (the One; Spenser’s allegory for Truth), and invited to replace her. In Gnostic Christianity, Satan, the Father of Lies, is Christ’s twin brother, the second son of the Father. He is the Anti-Christ, the Christ’s doppelganger, and this Christian myth expresses the danger of twoness: the theological truism, that is, that the moral peril of the soul comes not from vice, but from vice posing as – “duplicating” – virtue.

Two is thus the number of the opposites of which, as Heracleitus famously observed, the world is eternally engendered. In the pre-modern imagination, all existence thus moves between bipolar extremes: between reality and appearance, truth and falsehood, light and dark, life and death, immortal and mortal, god and man, the elemental “contraries” hot and cold, wet and dry, the temporal contraries past and present, the spatial contraries up and down, right and left, forward and backward, inner and outer, and so on. Mythology, especially biblical mythology, is naturally replete with characters, typically twin brothers or otherwise symmetrical pairs, who express these binary oppositions: Castor and Pollux, Adam and Christ (the second Adam), Eve and Mary (the second Eve), Cain and Abel, the Good and Bad Thief of the Passion, the Prodigal and his brother, Dives and Lazarus, and so on.


Everywhere underlying myth, as Jung demonstrates, is psychology, and in psychological terms, One is the number of our original unconsciousness. It is only when consciousness separates itself out of the unity of the unconscious pleroma that the ego recognizes the fundamental duality of being: the opposition between self and other, between subject and object, between knower and known, or, in terms of the biblical myth of the Fall, between good and evil.

And such oppositions are always experienced as tragic – no less tragic, that is, than the splitting off of the world from the One or the alienation of the soul are in the Platonic system.

When the ego-consciousness of the infant child has not yet differentiated itself from the consciousness of the mother, or in the infancy of the race, that of the tribesmen from the collective consciousness of the tribe – in such a state of unconscious identity, there are as yet no multiplicity, no choices, no conflicts, and no doubts.

It is a Paradise of unconscious unity. In such blessedness, man’s will is still subsumed within that of his Father in Heaven. Or rather, he obeys Him, not so much through any conscious exertion of will, but from unconscious identity.

When human consciousness differentiates itself out of the collective unconscious of the Divine, the tragedy known as the Fall occurs. The will of mankind now presents itself as another, a second will, in opposition to the first. Adam and Eve recognize that in goodness and evil there are two paths, not one, through the world. They become ashamed that they are naked, aware, that is, that the world is a duality, and that its body and soul are, as Paul writes, in a state of permanent mutual enmity.


The Triadic Circle, the Complexio Oppositorum, and the Triune God

Three is probably the most important number of all. It is the number in which the opposites are reconciled, and the original unity is restored.

The whole rhythm of existence is triadic, of course. Every process has a beginning, a middle, and an end; or speaking mythologically, which is to say, anthropomorphically, a youth, a maturity, and an old age; a birth, a growth, and a death.

But to the pre-modern imagination, every triadic process is also a circle, whose end is its beginning. All of creation traces this triangulated circle: the soul and the world begin in undifferentiated Unity in the spiritual Heaven of God; in the second phase, they proceed out and into the duality of body and soul; and when the body of man and the body of the world pass away, they return, in the third and final stage, to the Bosom of the One.

The triadic cycle is exultantly described by Lady Philosophy in that great Platonic hymn to the Father that is the ninth metre of Book III of the Consolation. (Before I read it, I cannot resist pointing out that Boethius’ placement of this hymn is a typical bit of medieval trinitarian number symbolism, given that as the square of three, the number nine, the “trinal triplicity” as Spenser called it, is the loftiest mystery of them all.) Lady Philosophy prays:

O God, Maker of heaven and earth, Who govern this world with eternal reason. You place all things in motion, though You yourself are without change. You who are most beautiful produce the beautiful world from your divine mind, and forming it in your image, You order the perfect parts in a perfect whole…

You release the world-soul throughout the harmonious parts of the universe as your surrogate, three-fold in its nature, to give motion to all things. That soul pursues its revolving course in two circles, one outbound, the other returning to its Source, embracing again the Divine Mind and transforming heaven and earth to its own image.

In like manner You create souls and lesser living forms. You scatter them through the earth and sky. And when they have turned again toward You, You call them back like leaping flames.

Grant, Oh Father, that my mind may rise to Thy sacred throne. Let it see the fountain of good; let it find light, so that the clear light of my soul may fix itself in Thee. Burn off the fogs and clouds of earth and shine through in thy splendor. The sight of Thee is beginning and end, end and beginning.

And so the whole triadic circle revolves again. The third is end and beginning, and by bringing everything back into the original One, the number three heals the divisions that fractured the primordial Unity.


Three is thus a divine and spiritual number, the number, in fact, in which the original but now hidden unity of the opposing two is revealed and reasserted, through the third that reconciles the opposites in a tertium comparationis, “the comparative third”, as Aristotle called it.

In practically all religious mythologies, therefore, the Godhead, and everything divine or mysterious, is expressed as a triad. Classical myth has the three Furies and their redemptresses, the Eumenides; the three Graces, the triple incarnation of beauty; the three Fates, through whose hands goes the single thread of life; and the three Griae, who share an eye.

As Homer relates, the government of the universe was primordially divided amongst the three eldest Olympian brothers, Hades, who presides over the Earth and Tartarus, Poseidon, over the sea, and Zeus, over Olympus and the starry heaven. In ancient Babylon, we find the analogous triad of Anu, the lord of heaven, Bel of earth, and Ea, of the underworld sea.

In literary geography, Heaven, Earth, and Hell are always the three most important divisions, with Earth being the tertium comparationis, the median and meeting point of all the world’s heavenly and hellish tendencies. This is the spatial triad, so to speak.

In Greek myth, the temporal triad is represented by the so-called Triple Goddess, Persephone-Ceres-Hecate, though she has many names, all of which express the stages of female life, from maiden, to mother, to crone. Not surprisingly, the Triple Goddess is usually associated with the moon, which is either waxing, full, or waning.

In ancient Zoroastrian myth, the temporal triad is represented by the solar God Mithras standing between Ahreiman, the daimon of night and darkness, on one side, and Ahuramazda, the principle of light, on the other. In related representations, Mithras is the central figure between two funereal torch bearers, the torch held by the figure on his right pointing upward, the one on his left, downward, its flame guttering out. As the sun-god who rises and sets and rises again, Mithras stands in the middle to show that as death follows life, and darkness light, so birth must come out of death and new light out of darkness.

As such, there is an inevitable cyclical evolution of one torch-bearer into the other, of Arhreiman into Ahuramazda and vice-versa. The flanking opposites are meant to be viewed as evolutional phases or hypostases of the solar deity Mithras himself, the left and right personae, so to speak, of the central godhead. The Trinity Ahreiman, Ahuramazda, and Mithras are three Persons in One God. And as the central figure who represents the cyclical life-process of all three, Mithras is the coincidentia oppositorum, in whom the duality becomes a unity again.

In the early second century A.D., the formative period of Christian trinitarian doctrine, the Persian triad of Ahuramazda-Mithras-Ahreiman was well-known from Plutarch’s analysis in his universally read classic De Iside et Osiride: “Oromazes”, writes Plutarch, “may best be compared to light, and Areimanius, conversely, to darkness and ignorance, and midway between the two is Mithras; for this reason the Persians give to Mithras the name of ‘Mediator’.” Plutarch identifies this pattern of mediated opposites as a universal “law of Nature”, since, as Heracleitus argued, “everything in this world is the result of two opposed principles and two antagonistic forces”. “The constitution of the world” results, he says, from “opposing influences”, mediated by third things that partake of both extremes.

The same dynamic governs the life-process of all ancient trinities. In Egypt, the triadic godhead consisted of the solar deity Re, the Pharaoh, his son, and the ka or soul that they shared. The ka was held to be the procreative agent in the conception of the Pharaoh as the son and heir of the divine Father—just as the Holy Spirit is in Christianity.

In the Christian Trinity, of course, the Holy Spirit is described as the bond of love between the Father and the Son. Orthodox Christianity will not abide the notion that there is any sort of opposition between Father and Son that needs to be reconciled. But that does not mean that we should close our eyes to this evident mythological and psychological fact.

Father and Son have been opposed in myth and literature down through the generations, from Uranos and Kronos, to Kronos and Zeus, to Sophocles’ Laius and Oedipus, to Freud’s Laius and Oedipus, and so on, all the way down the line. Grandfathers and fathers, especially when they are kings, sometimes try to have their offspring killed in their desire to forestall the succession. Or they send them as sacrifices on suicidal adventures requiring the rescuing of maidens or whole nations under siege to horrible sea-dragons, in the expectation that they won’t come back alive – Perseus and his fellow dragon-killer Jesus come to mind.

The central agon of the myth of the hero – the “monomyth”, as Joseph Campbell called it – invariably involves a conflict between the divine child and what Campbell has called “The Monster of the Status Quo”. In narrative as in the salvation story of the soul, the New Birth demands a death which the Old Man (in Paul’s formulation) is reluctant to provide.

In the Christian Trinity, the Father is the embodiment of the ancien regime – the Old Law of Justice and Vengeance, as opposed to the revolutionary New Law of Mercy and Love which threatens to supplant it. The birth of the Son presages an entirely new era, new ethos, new creation, in fact. With its advent, Paul’s outer Israel, an historical nation defined by the visible, physical stigmatum of circumcision and the outward piety of gesture, is replaced by the inner Israel, an invisible, incorporeal, universal community of souls – note the Platonic antinomies again –, whose circumcision, as Paul writes in Romans, “is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter”.

The old carnal man passes away and the new spiritual man is “put on” in its place. The Incarnation, that is, marks the transition from the world of the Father to the world of the Son. But the ancien regime does not give up its authority easily. The letter killeth indeed.

It is no wonder that as the voice of Old Testament political messianism and Pharisaical literalism, Caiaphas demands, “Crucify him”.


Though I’d like to, I don’t have time to go much further along these lines. The main point is in any case that both the Christian Trinity, like its pagan antecedents (the vestigia Trinitatis or prefigurations of the Trinity that Augustine admitted to detecting everywhere in pre-Christian myth and philosophy) are fundamentally conceived as a coincidence of opposites. In the fifteenth century, the Florentine Neoplatonist Pico della Mirandola certainly regarded the pagan axiom of the coincidentia oppositorum as basic to the understanding of the Christian Trinity. He envisioned the doctrine of the Trinity as having derived from an ancient Platonic law, which he declared to be the key to what he called the “Orphic theology” (of which Heracleitus and Pythagoras were early prophets): as the divine Unity universally unfolds into triads, Pico explained, so “the contraries coincide in the One” (contradictoria coincidunt in natura uniali). That is, as the Godhead overflows into triads, it reveals its unitary nature by manifesting its extremes and holding them together in a “common middle”.

The locus classicus of the ancient Platonic law to which Pico refers is Plato’s Timaeus, where the interlocutor of that name explains:

Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines.

The mean is the complexio oppositorum, the “bond” that in itself combines the nature of both extremes. Timaeus expresses this in terms of proportion, which he calls the spirit of “love” that “harmonizes” the cosmos. In terms of the four elements, this means, as he says, that “as fire is to air, so is air to water, and as air is to water, so is water to earth”.

The Platonic principle of the mean results in a universe of infinite “plenitude”, to use the medieval term, a universe that abhors a vacuum. Between any two things in the chain of being, a third must be duly constellated to fill the gap.

Between God and man we must have angels, who are incorporeal like God but sharing man’s freedom of will, are mutable and liable to fall. Man stands, as Milton’s Raphael explains, halfway between the angels and the beasts, possessing, in common with the former, a rational soul; with the latter, a life-principle, sentience, and a body. The beasts in turn stand midway between man and the plant kingdom, sharing with man a sensory soul and with the vegetation the faculty of growth. And so it goes.

But the principal function of the middle third was not so much to serve as a stopgap to fill up the holes in creation, as it was to serve as a bridge across the chasm separating incommensurable opposites. For Platonism in particular and philosophy in general, the main problem had always been to explain how a multiple and corruptible material creation could derive from a purely incorporeal, immutable, eternal, and unitary Creator. To Middle Platonists such as the Pseudo-Aristotle and Apuleius, any direct contact between God and the world of matter was out of the question, since it would have utterly contaminated the purity of the One. And so in the Neoplatonic Trinity of the One, Nous (mind), and Psyche (the world-soul), the Nous or Psyche functions as the necessary intermediary between the Divine and the fallen world of space and time.

The Christian Redeemer is also such a “Mediator”. As completely God and completely man, the Incarnate Word heals the rift between the Father in Heaven and fallen man by possessing both a divine and human nature. We have already seen that as the express image and likeness of the Father, the Son makes the hidden Father visible and knowable to the sensual and finite human understanding. But that is only because the Reason in man is, as Clement of Alexandria points out, the express image and likeness of the Son as Logos. As Plato’s Timaeus might have put it, as the Son is to the Father, so man is to the Son. Father, Son, and Man are thus posited as the New Trinity.

Man is the Mediator par excellence, of course. He is himself a Trinity, his soul being the ligature that binds the divine and heavenly element within him, his Reason, to his mortal and earthly body. He is the microcosm in whom everything that exists in the macrocosm resides in miniature. The soul he shares with heaven and the body he shares with the world bridges the primordial divide.

In the beginning, as Hesiod relates, during that blissful state of original unity, Heaven and Earth were “one form”. But then, with the tragedy of creation, the elements were separated each into its respective province. Father Sky and Mother Earth went through the cosmogonic divorce that is familiar from the myths of many ancient cultures. But carrying down into his earthly frame seeds of divine Fire from Heaven, as Ovid puts it, Man restores the sacred marriage, and so reintegrates the Divine Animal.

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