Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part I

Mathematics…Music…The Harmony of the Spheres…

The Literary Dream Vision…The Vanity of  Earthly Fame…


Cicero’s Dream of Scipio…

In the first installment of Involuted Mysteries, we began with the question asked by the earliest Greek philosophers:  What is the universe made of?  One of the recurrent answers of the Pre-Socratics was number.  That, in turn, occasioned our steady march through the numerals one to twelve, which served, if nothing more, as a convenient means of introducing some of the foundational themes and topoi that inevitably presented themselves along the way.

It was Pythagoras, of course, who first posited number as the underlying principle–the Physis or Nature–that governs the orderly operations of the cosmos.  Needless to say, his intuition of the secret mathematical structure of the universe was, for the future of science, momentous.  But Pythagoras was hardly interested in mathematical theory per se.  His discovery of the rudiments of arithmetic and geometry was a by-product, in fact, of his investigations into the secrets of music, our next broad theme.

As we saw when discussing the Seven Liberal Arts, Pythagoras was typically depicted in the sculptural representations of the Arts on the facades of medieval churches as the founder, master, and patron spirit sometimes of Music, sometimes of Arithmetic, sometimes of both.  This is not only because he is the traditional inventor of both of these ancient Arts, but because, from the beginning, he regarded them as mutually interdependent departments of knowledge.

It was Pythagoras who first noted that the principal intervals, the octave, major third, fourth, and fifth, were produced as a function of the ratio or proportion between the length of a string and the length from one end of it to the point at which it is stopped.  Put your finger on a string at its midpoint and the resulting note will be an octave higher than that when you plucked the string unstopped.  This, of course, is a universal physical law.

Pythagoras was probably unaware that it had anything to do with the frequency of the string’s vibration (twice as fast, at half its length); nonetheless, it is impossible to overestimate the significance of his discovery of the mathematical basis of the science of sound as it presaged the mathematical basis of physics, astronomy, and every other branch of scientific inquiry.

As Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics (the first book of which is an invaluable history of philosophy from its beginnings down to his own time in the early fourth century):

The so-called Pythagoreans, having applied themselves to mathematics, first advanced that study; and having been trained in it they thought that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things.  Since of these principles numbers are by nature first, they thought they saw many similarities to things which exist and come into being in numbers rather than in fire and earth and water—justice being such and such a modification of numbers, soul and reason, being another,…and so with the rest, each being expressible numerically.  Seeing, further, that the properties and ratios of the musical consonances were expressible in numbers, and that indeed all other things seemed to be wholly modeled in their nature upon numbers, they 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.

Aristotle refers here to the Pythagorean doctrine of the music or harmony of the spheres, which was to become one of the most enduring and popular topoi in Western literature and thought.


In his De Caelo, Aristotle gives a somewhat more detailed account of the doctrine:

Some thinkers suppose that the motion of bodies [the stars and planets] so great must produce a noise, since even objects here on earth do so, though they are not equal in bulk to those, nor do they move at such high speeds.  That the sun and moon and stars, so great in number and in size, and moving with so swift a motion, should fail to produce a sound correspondingly great, is (they say) incredible.  On this assumption, then, together with the further assumption that their speeds, as determined by their distances from the centre are in the ratios of the musical consonances, they say that the sound made by the heavenly bodies as they revolve is a harmony.  And in order to account for the fact that we do not hear the sound, they say that it is with us from the moment of birth, so that we are unable to distinguish it from its opposite, silence; for sound and silence are only known by contrast.  Consequently, what happens to us is similar to what happens to workers in bronze, who are so used to noise that they do not notice it.

That the pitch of the sound produced by a revolving object is directly related to its speed was a fact well enough known from ordinary experience.  The Pythagorean philosopher Archytas, who lived from 428 to 347 B.C., and who was a friend of Plato, used the example of the “rhombos”, a liturgical wind instrument whirled about at the end of a stick or string during the celebration of the Eleusinian and Bacchic mysteries, which, Archytas observes, produces a low note when whirled slowly, and a high one when whirled vigorously.  But the speed of the heavenly bodies is in turn a function of their distance “from the centre”, as Aristotle notes—that is, from the earth.  For Pythagoras, the rotation of the seven planets and fixed stars about the earth was assumed to be in the same plane, and each of the eight spheres was also assumed to complete its revolution over the same period.  To keep their position relative to one another, the outermost spheres—those closer to the circumference–must naturally revolve more swiftly than those closer to the centre, just as a point along the spoke of a wagon wheel that is near the felloe or tire must move more swiftly than a point near the hub.  For this reason, they produced different pitches:  the moon (that is to say, the planet that is closest to the earth) producing the lowest, and the Stellatum or sphere of the fixed stars, which is farthest from the earth (on the very circumference of the cosmos) producing the highest.

One of the classic statements of this topos is found in Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, a text to which you may have already heard me refer many times in previous courses, because, as is the nature of seminal texts, it so perfectly recapitulates an otherwise complex philosophical tradition.  We need to look carefully at this text insofar as it demonstrates that the doctrine of the music of the spheres, like all “merely” cosmological doctrines, is at root a religious or mythological symbol, amongst many that belong to a more or less universal ancient method for the salvation of the soul.

Cicero’s Dream is the principal remaining fragment of the sixth and final book of his Republic.  In the dialogue, the speaker Scipio the Younger relates that while serving as a military tribune in Africa, he met King Massinissa, whose hereditary territory Scipio Africanus the Elder (Scipio the Younger’s eminent namesake and adoptive grandfather) had restored.  They spend the day in conversation, reminiscing about the deeds of Scipio’s glorious ancestor, and then, after dinner, as the speaker relates, “the following dream came to me, prompted, I suppose, by the subject of our conversation; for it often happens that our thoughts and words have some such effect in our sleep…”   In the dream, the spirit of Scipio the Elder duly appears to him, looking down from his eternal abode in the eighth sphere.


Scipio’s explanation that dreams are fecundated by our recent waking preoccupations was a commonplace of traditional dream theory, which is in itself a topic so ubiquitous that we’ll have at some point to return to it.  But, for now, a couple of examples should suffice to illustrate both the influence of Cicero’s Somnium and the tendency of early literature to rehearse such conventional themes.

In Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, the poet-narrator reads the Somnium Scipionis itself, a summary of whose doctrine he provides.  While still pondering his reading matter, he falls asleep and has a dream in which, none other than Scipio Africanus appears to him.  Indeed, as the poet explains, it is because he had been reading the Dream of Scipio that his own dream takes the form that it does.

Here, of course, Chaucer is merely repeating the pattern of the Dream of Scipio, in which Scipio the Younger dreams about Scipio the Elder after having a conversation about him the afternoon before.

One other example comes immediately to mind, this also from Chaucer.  In the Proem to Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the poet-narrator picks up his volume of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the hope that it will help him fall asleep (not the greatest compliment he might have paid to Ovid, who was held in high reverence in the Middle Ages).  By chance, his eyes alight upon the myth of Ceyx and Alcyone.

Ceyx and Alcyone, as the narrator paraphrases Ovid, are the king and queen of Thessaly, and so much in love that they were never willingly apart.  But Ceyx decides that he must depart on a long sea voyage to consult the Delphic oracle.  As the daughter of Aeolus, king of the winds, Alcyone knows how perilous the sea can be, and full of foreboding, she tries to dissuade her husband from embarking.  And indeed when he does, that very night, there is a monstrous storm, which sinks his ship and all its crew.

Ceyx dies with the name of his beloved Alcyone on his lips.  Every day thereafter, Alcyone waits anxiously, weaving a beautiful robe in expectation of Ceyx’ return—the Penelope motif–, going down to the shore in hopes of spotting her husband’s ship, and praying to Juno for his safe return.  When Juno hears her prayers, she takes pity upon her, sending Iris, the messenger goddess, to the house of Somnus, god of sleep, bidding that he send Alcyone a dream in which she might learn of Ceyx’ death.

Somnus is awoken painfully by Iris—a typical flourish of Ovidian humour–, but accepts the commission, which he then hands on to his son Morpheus, who is able to take the shape of anyone at will.  Morpheus is finally awoken with equal difficulty, but promptly assumes the shape of Ceyx, and appearing to Alcyone in a dream, tells her to wait for him no longer, for he has drowned, and must now descend into the underworld.  Ceyx-Morpheus then assures her of his undying love, begs that she accept his death with equanimity, and vanishes.

The news, however, only makes Alcyone go mad with grief, and determine to join him in the kingdom of the dead.  But when she goes down to the shore with the intention of throwing herself into the sea, she sees the corpse of her husband drifting landward.  Then, as Ovid ends the story in his usual way, the gods take pity on them both, metamorphosing them into birds, who are always thereafter seen together.  Their permanent reunion in avian form is the reason why every winter there are seven days of perfect sunshine and calm, the days during which Alcyone broods over her nest, called, therefore, Halcyon days.  Again, this is the typical Ovidian coda, and a perfect example of what mythologists call an “aetiological myth”, i.e., one that is invented to explain some ritual or tradition whose original meaning has been lost in the mists of time.

This, then, is the poet’s bedtime reading.  After retailing the myth, he says that he becomes so drowsy that he falls asleep right upon his book, and dreams.  The content of his dream is, of course, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, which tells the story of the untimely death of Chaucer’s patroness Blanch, the Duchess of Gaunt, wife of Duke John of Gaunt, whose love and devotion to one another was as celebrated as that between Ceyx and Alcyone.

The Book of the Duchess is thus an elegy, cast in the form of a dream, whose purpose is to console John of Gaunt and Chaucer himself, both bereft by the death of a beloved lady, just as in the Ovidian myth which the poet had been reading before falling asleep, Alcyone is bereft by the death of her beloved husband Ceyx, who appears to her in a dream meant to console her.


But the nature and classification of dreams is, as I said, another ancient and longstanding topos, a fuller discussion of which we will have to postpone until later.  Let us return, then, to the Dream of Scipioand the harmony of the spheres.

In his dream, Scipio beholds his famous ancestor standing before him, and enumerating the great military and political deeds that his grandson will in due course accomplish; (and since Cicero wrote hisRepublic nearly a century after the death of Scipio the Younger, these predictions turn out to be uncannily accurate).

This half-humorous motive, too, is conventional, the most celebrated instance of which is the panoramic prophecy revealed by the ghost of Aeneas’ father Anchises of his son’s, and Rome’s, glorious future, in the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Anchises “predicts” the history of Rome from the time of its establishment down, by sheer coincidence, to Virgil’s own day.

There are innumerable other examples, of course, including Paradiso canto 17, in which the spirit of Cacciaguida foretells the eternal fame of Dante the poet—a prophetic self-compliment–, but I merely note these in passing as another commonplace of pre-modern literature.

Scipio then advises his descendant that nothing is more pleasing to the gods than the just and benevolent administration of the commonwealth, whose rulers “have a special place reserved for them in the heavens, where they may enjoy an eternal life of happiness”.  This place, he says, reiterating the Orpheo-Pythagoreo-Platonic doctrine of the pre-existence of souls in the other world and their return thereto, is the place from which just rulers first descended to earth, and the place to which, after death, they will repair.

Scipio then asks whether his grandfather and father Paulus are really still alive, and he is told emphatically:  Surely all those are alive who have escaped from the bondage of the body as from a prison; but that life of yours, which men so call, is really death.”  If this is so, asks Scipio the Younger, why should he not commit suicide in order to “hasten thither to you”.

Scipio the Elder then enumerates the reasons for the prohibition against suicide, the same reasons given by Socrates when asked the same question by his interlocutor Cebes in a passage that occurs early in Plato’s Phaedo, the passage upon which Cicero has self-consciously modeled this section of theDream:

“Not so, for unless God, whose temple is everything that you see, has freed you from the prison of the body, you cannot gain entrance there.  For man was given life that he might inhabit that sphere called Earth, which you see in the centre of this temple; and he has been given a soul out of those eternal fires which you call stars and planets, which, being round and globular bodies animated by divine intelligences, circle about in their fixed orbits with marvelous speed.  Wherefore you, Publius, and all good men, must leave that soul in the custody of the body, and must not abandon human life except at the behest of him by whom it was given you, lest you appear to have shirked the duty imposed upon man by God.”

That duty, as Scipio explains, is twofold:  The first duty is the cultivation of virtue and wisdom, by which the soul prepares itself in this living death for the true life of the other world.  The second, of course, is service to the commonwealth, so that under the guidance of wise rulers, its citizens might live in justice and harmony.   (Inasmuch as the Christian prohibition against suicide probably comes from this passage, it is not surprising to find the same reasoning, expressed in terms of military duty, implicit in the words of  Redcross Knight’s admonition, who answers Despair’s temptation to suicide in Spenser’s sixteenth-century poem, The Faerie Queene:

The souldier may not move from watchfull sted
Nor leave his stand until his Captaine bid
FQ I, xi 41)

By this point in his dream, Scipio the Younger has presumably been exalted to the side of his grandfather in heaven, and from this superior perspective he overlooks the vastness of the cosmos.  What follows is an epitome of Ptolemaic astronomy, replete, as always, with the traditional moral and psychological assumptions of which the pre-modern model of the cosmos is the projected image:

     When I gazed in every direction from that point, all else appeared wonderfully beautiful. There were stars which we never see from the earth, and they were all larger than we have ever imagined.  The smallest of them was that farthest from heaven and nearest the earth which shone with a borrowed light [i.e., the Moon].  The starry spheres were much larger than the earth; indeed the earth itself seemed to me so small that I was scornful of our empire, which covers only a single point, as it were, upon its surface.

As I gazed still more fixedly at the earth, Africanus said:  “How long will your thoughts be fixed upon the lowly earth?  Do you not see what lofty regions you have entered?  These are the nine circles, or rather spheres, by which the whole is joined.  One of them, the outermost, is that of heaven; it contains all the rest, and is itself the supreme God, holding and embracing within itself all the other spheres; in it are fixed the eternal revolving courses of the stars. Beneath it are seven other spheres which revolve in the opposite direction to that of heaven. One of these globes is that light which on earth is called Saturn’s.  Next comes the star called Jupiter’s, which brings fortune and health to mankind.  Beneath it is that star, red and terrible to the dwellings of man, which you assign to Mars.  Below it and almost midway of the distance [i.e., between God’s heaven at the circumference and earth at the centre] is the Sun, the lord, chief, and ruler of the other lights, the mind and guiding principle of the universe, of such magnitude that he reveals and fills all things with his light.  He is accompanied by his companions, as it were—Venus and Mercury in their orbits, and in the lowest sphere revolves the Moon, set on fire by the rays of the Sun.  But below the Moon there is nothing except what is mortal and doomed to decay, save only the souls given to the human race by the bounty of the gods, while above the Moon all things are eternal.   For the ninth and central sphere, which is the earth, is immovable and the lowest of all, and toward it all ponderable bodies are drawn by their own natural tendency downward.”

After recovering from the astonishment with which I viewed these wonders, I said:  “What is this loud and agreeable sound that fills my ears?”

“That is produced”, he replied, “by the onward rush and motion of the spheres themselves; the intervals between them, though unequal, being exactly arranged in a fixed proportion, by an agreeable blending of high and low tones various harmonies are produced; for such mighty motions cannot be carried on so swiftly in silence; and Nature has provided that one extreme shall produce low tones while the other gives forth high.  Therefore this uppermost sphere of heaven, which bears the stars, as it revolves more rapidly, produces a high, shrill tone, whereas the lowest revolving sphere, that of the Moon, gives forth the lowest tone; for the earthly sphere, the ninth, remains ever motionless and stationary, in its position in the centre of the universe.  But the other eight spheres…produce seven different sounds—a number which is the key of almost everything.  Learned men, by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in song, have gained for themselves a return to this region, as others have obtained the same reward by devoting their brilliant intellects to divine pursuits during their earthly lives.  Men’s ears, ever filled with this sound, have become deaf to it…We find a similar phenomenon where the Nile rushes down from those lofty mountains at the place called Catadupa [i.e., the cataracts of the Nile]; the people who live nearby have lost their sense of hearing on account of the loudness of the sound.  But this mighty music, produced by the revolution of the whole universe at the highest speed, cannot be perceived by human ears, any more than you can look straight at the Sun, your sense of sight being overpowered by its radiance.”

While gazing at these wanders, I was repeatedly turning my eyes back to earth.  Then Africanus resumed:

“I see that you are still directing your gaze upon the habitation and abode of men.  If it seems small to you, as it actually is, keep your gaze fixed upon those heavenly things and scorn the earthly…”

The Dream then goes on to dilate upon the theme of human vanity; his grandson, having already noted that by comparison to the stars the earth was so small that the Roman Empire–which was hardly more than a point on its tiny surface–excited his contempt, Scipio the Elder now points out that only a few small regions of our miniscule globe inhabited by men, to which the fame of the most glorious amongst them is limited.  Indeed, a man may be famous in one city, and completely unknown in an adjoining province.  Moreover, every time the world is periodically destroyed by conflagration or flood, and renewed throughout the recurrent cycle of death and rebirth, a man’s fame is utterly obliterated.  How insubstantial a thing is earthly fame, then, which can hardly last a single year, compared with the great or revolving year when the stars and planets return to their original configuration, and the cycle finally ends.

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