Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Student's Guide

By Isabel Rivers | Go to book overview

13

Numerology

Numerology, or the science of the symbolic meaning of numbers, was applied in the Renaissance to three different subjects: the cosmos, the Bible and the work of art. God was believed to have created the world on numerical principles and to have given the Bible an additional layer of meaning by filling it with symbolic numbers. The initiate into the mysteries of numerology could 'read' both God's books, the Book of Works (the universe) and the Book of Words (the Bible). The artist could imitate the divine process of creation by organising his work on numerical principles; the harmonious construction of the work would thus reflect the harmony of the universe not because it was an imitation in a simple sense but because it was created by the same method.

The idea that the basis of the world is number derives from the Pythagorean and Platonic tradition. Our knowledge of the beliefs of Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician of the sixth century BC who founded a religious community in southern Italy, is entirely second-hand: it comes from a hostile critic, Aristotle (1), and from sympathisers such as Plato and the Neoplatonists. Because the Pythagoreans expressed numbers spatially, as groups of points, they came to think of numbers as having concrete existence. The two most important groups of numbers are the Tetrad (4) and the Decad (10). The Tetrad can be expressed geometrically: 1 as a point, 2 as a line, 3 as a triangle, 4 as a pyramid. The Tetrad is the basis of the Decad because 10=1+2+3+4. This relationship is expressed in the Tetractys, which consists of the points of the Decad arranged

triangularly: Each number in the Decad has a particular meaning, which is not merely symbolic. Pythagoras discovered that the musical scale can be expressed in terms of numerical proportion, and this discovery led to the belief that everything in the universe can be similarly expressed: things are numbers (1). The opposition between odd and even numbers was regarded as underlying all contraries: limit and the unlimited, male and female, light and dark, good and bad. The monad (1) represents unity, the dyad (2) excess or defect, the triad (3) reconciliation of opposites, the tetrad (4) equilibrium and justice (hence, for example, the emphasis in antiquity on 4 humours, 4

-170-

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Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Student's Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface to the Second Edition vi
  • Preface to the First Edition viii
  • Introduction: Renaissance Poetry and Modern Readers 1
  • 1 - The Golden Age and the Garden of Eden 9
  • 2 - The Pagan Gods 20
  • 3 - Platonism and Neoplatonism 33
  • 4 - Stoicism 44
  • 5 - Views of History 54
  • 6 - Cosmology 68
  • 7 - Reformation and Counter-Reformation 88
  • 8 - Protestant Theology 106
  • 9 - Humanism 125
  • 10 - Biblical Exegesis and Typology 140
  • 11 - Theories of Poetry 150
  • 12 - Allegory 160
  • 13 - Numerology 170
  • A Note on the Division of Historical Periods 183
  • Abbreviations 184
  • References 185
  • Further Reading 193
  • Bibliographical Appendix 205
  • Author Index 229
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