Saturday, December 17, 2011

All is Number

The dictum of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 580-500 BC) and his school was All is Number. To understand what was truly meant by this phrase we have to understand a little more about Pythagoras. He was much more than a mathematician. The contemporary of the saint Gautama Budhha was first of all a spiritual teacher and a healer, and he belonged to the first generations of searchers of wisdom and truth that came from the Hellenic world and were later called „philosophers“.

Pythagoras observed that music and sound follows certain numerical laws of harmony. Moreover he discovered that all things of the universe have numerical attributes that follow the same laws. He even created a musical system based on those laws. But in this context we have to understand, that when in the ancient world the word „musike“ was used, it was inseparably connected with poetry and dance. Literally music meant the „arts of the Muses“, and the Muses embraced more or less all the arts.

Especially music, poetry (sung and spoken) and dance formed one unit, and it was common practice that those three arts were performed simultaneously and very rarely alone. But they not only appeared together, they even determined each other. For example, Homers verses were written in a certain rhythm (the Hexameter) that lead to certain dance steps (those of the Syrtos). And simultaneously the words were declaimed in melodies that fit into the rhythm and the dance.

For now I do not want to go further into the Pythagorean music theory. But I want that we have a look at the basic, fundamental and principal meanings of the first three numbers in correlation with the arts of the „Muses“, especially Rhythm and Dance.

Lets start with the number ONE. Interestingly, the Pythagoreans did not consider „ONE“ to be a number at all. ONE is so perfect in itself, that it can have no attributes. It represents the divine. Just like the „TAO“ of the Chinese mystic LaoTse, that can not be spoken or described. ONE in its absence of duality can not be known, because there is no split between subject and object yet. Translated into the realm of Rhythm it could be said that one beat alone can not form a rhythm, and the same applies for only one single dance step. But we can associate the number ONE with the focused stillness of the dancer before the actual dance begins. And just like every dance at one time springs out of the stillness, it also goes back into it.

If you think we have more luck with the number TWO, I have to disappoint you again. The Pythagoreans considered neither the TWO to be a number. They saw it as a symbol of duality. A symbol of balance, but also of conflict and opposition. Without the number TWO, the positive and negative could not exist. The Pythagoreans thought this number to be most unlucky. Because it was the opponent of the godly ONE it was dedicated to the god of the Underworld. And a few hundred years later, Plato argued that there was no meaning to the number TWO, as it suggests a relationship and a relationship will in turn introduce a third factor.

When we look at dance, we can see that the TWO at the most represents our ability to walk on two feet, which can not yet be called "dance". But it can form the means and the background for real rhythms and dance steps.

Only when we combine the holy ONE with the under-worldly TWO we arrive at THREE. Now we have finally arrived at the realm of numbers (for the Pythagoreans the THREE was the first true number) and therefore: at the realm of rhythm and dance. Try to combine the movements of your both feet in a way that they perform cycles of three steps, and you suddenly will realize that the dance has started to happen.

It can be said that THREE is the most important, and also most sacred number of all. The first geometrical figure is the triangle. In the Hellenic world the Tripod (a chair or a small table standing on three legs) was sacred and symbolized the God Apollo. In the Oracle of Delphi the priestess Pythia would take her seat on the tripod. Tripods were also widely used by ordinary people as alters.

Three was considered the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding. A meaningful dialogue can only happen through threefold dialectic (thesis – antithesis – synthesis). In Hinduism the three Gods Brahma / Vishnu / Shiva represent creation – preservation and destruction: the eternal cycle of existence in time. And finally in Christianity the Holy Trinity (Father - Son - Holy Spirit) represents again the divine principle of the number Three.

I could go on describing the attributes and meanings of the following numbers. Maybe some other time? For now I just wanted to show you that all this counting and dancing would not exist without the birth of THREE out of ONE and TWO. (According to the Pythagoreans ONE is the father and TWO is the mother.) However, I think it has become clear why THREE is also the number of the magicians. With its help the world can be created, including the fascinating and manifold cosmos of the „Muses“. Again and again, through all times.

Sangit Om