Occult Signs & Symbols
III. The Symbolism of Numbers
September 15, 1907, Stuttgart
The Mystics and the Time of Copernicus. Involution, Evolution and Creation out of Nothingness. The Number Four, the Sign of Creation.
Today we shall first occupy ourselves with a consideration of what is called the symbolism of numbers. When speaking of occult signs and symbols, it is necessary to mention the symbols that are expressed in numbers, even if only briefly. You may recall my elucidations of the day before yesterday in which I spoke of the numerical proportions in the universe, of the speed with which the single planets move and of the harmony of the spheres that comes about through these different speeds. Even from this you can see that numbers and numerical proportions have a certain meaning for the cosmos and the world. It is in numbers, we might say, that the harmony that wells through space is expressed. Now we shall turn our attention to a more intimate numerical symbolism, the meaning of which we can only touch upon, however. Were we really to immerse ourselves in it, many other things would have to be considered. Anyway, you will receive at least an idea of what is meant when it is said of the old occult Pythagorean School that it stressed the necessity of immersing oneself in the nature of numbers in order to gain an insight into the world.
To think about numbers may appear dry and dreary to many. To those who are affected by the materialistic culture of our times it will appear as mere playfulness if it is believed that, through a consideration of numbers, it is possible to gain knowledge of the nature of things. There was, however, a deep reason for the great Pythagoras to tell his pupils that knowledge concerning the nature of numbers would lead to the essence of things. But do not think it sufficient to reflect on the numbers 1, 3, or 7. Real occult teaching knows nothing of witchcraft and magic, nor of a superstitious meaning of some number. Its knowledge rests on deeper things, and from the short sketch I will give you, you will see that numbers can give you a clue to what is called meditation if you have the key to plunge deeply enough.
The number one must be our starting point. Later, in considering the other numbers, it will become clearer how far the number one symbolizes what I shall say. In all occultism the One has always designated the indivisible unity of God in the universe. God is indicated by the number one. We should not believe, however, that anything is to be gained by becoming engrossed in nothing but this number. You will see later how this absorption should rightfully come about, and it will be far more fruitful if we first consider the other numbers.
Two is called the number of revelation in occultism. This means that whatever appears to us in the world, whatever reveals itself, whatever is not in any way concealed, stands as a duality. Thereby we acquire ground under our feet, whereas with the number one we are groping in the unfathomable. Everywhere in nature you find that nothing reveals itself without being related to the number two. Light alone cannot reveal itself. There must also be shadow or darkness — that is, a duality. There could never be a world filled with manifest light were there not corresponding shadow. Thus it is with all things. It would never be possible for good to manifest if it did not have evil as shadow-picture. The duality of good and evil is a necessity in the manifest world. There are infinitely many dualities. They fit all life, but we must look for them at the right spots.
There is one important duality in life about which men might well reflect. Yesterday, we considered various conditions that a man experienced before he became an inhabitant of our present earth. We saw that on Saturn and on Sun he had a certain immortality in that he directed his body from outside, that he broke off pieces of this body and added new ones, so that he perceived nothing of fading and dying. Human consciousness at that time was not as it is today, but was dull. Men have wrestled through to a consciousness for the first time on our earth. It is here that a man first becomes a being who knew something of himself and could distinguish himself from objects. For this to occur, it was necessary not only that he direct his body from the outside, that he broke off pieces of this body and added new ones, so that he perceived nothing of fading and dying. Human consciousness at that time was not as it is today, but was dull. Men have wrestled through to a consciousness that is bound up with self-consciousness for the first time on our earth. It is here that a man first became a being who knew something of himself and could distinguish himself from objects. For this to occur, it was necessary not only that he direct himself from outside, but he also had to slip into this body, perceive himself therein, and say “I” to it. Only because a man finds himself completely in his body has he been able to achieve his full consciousness. Now, however, he also shares the destiny of his body. Earlier, when he still hovered over it, this was not the case. It was only when a man had achieved this degree of consciousness that he came into relation with death. At the moment when his body falls apart, he feels the suspension of his ego because he identifies himself with his body. Only gradually, through spiritual development, will he again achieve the old immortality. The body is here as the school through which to wrestle through to immortality with self-consciousness. Through death a man acquires immortality on a higher level. As long as he had not experienced death, so long was the world unrevealed to him because duality belongs to the revealed world — death and life.
Thus, we could point out dualities at every step in life. In physics you find positive and negative electricity, in magnetism, forces of attraction and repulsion. Everything appears in duality. Two, duality, is the number of appearance, of manifestation.
There is, however, no revelation save that the Divine holds sway behind the scenes. In this way, behind every duality a unity is hidden. Therefore, three is nothing but two and one, that is, the revelation and the existent divinity backing it.
Three is the number of the Divinity revealing itself. There is a statement in occultism that says that two can never be the number for the Divinity. One is a number for God, and also the three. The one who sees the world as a duality, sees it only in its revelation. Whoever claims that this duality is all is always in the wrong. Let us make this clear to ourselves with an example. Even in places where spiritual science is discussed, sinning often occurs against the statement of true occultism that two is the number of revelation but not the number of fullness or completeness. You will often hear it said in popular occultism by people who do not really know, that all development runs its course through involution and evolution, but we shall see the direction this really takes. First, however let's examine a plant, a fully developed plant with roots, leaves, stems, blossoms, fruit, etc. This is an evolution. But now observe the small seed from which the plant has arisen or can arise. In this tiny seed the entire plant is, in a sense, already contained. It is hidden within it, ensheathed, because the seed is taken from the whole plant, which has laid all its forces into the seed. Here we may therefore make a distinction between two processes — the one in which the seed's forces have unfurled themselves and unfolded into the plant, evolution, and the other in which the plant has folded itself up and, as it were, crept into the seed, involution.
The process that occurs when a being that has many organs so forms itself that nothing of these organs remains visible, so that they contract to a tiny part, is called an involution. The process of expansion and unfolding is an evolution. Everywhere in life this duality alternates but always only within the manifest. You can follow this up not only in the plant but also in higher realms of life. Let us trace in thought, for example, the development of European spiritual life from Augustine to Calvin, that is, roughly through the Middle Ages. You will find in Augustine a kind of mystical inwardness. No one can read the Confessions or his other writings without experiencing the deep inwardness of this man's feeling life. When we advance further, we come across wonderful characters such as Scotus Erigena, a monk from Scotland called the Scottish St. John, who later lived at the court of Charles the Bald. He did not get on well with the Church, and it is told that the brothers of his order tortured him to death with pins. Of course, this is not to be taken literally, but it is true that he was tortured to death. A splendid book was written by him, On the Divisions in Nature which reveals a great profundity of thought even though it is found wanting in many ways from the anthroposophical point of view.
Proceeding further, we find the German mystics in the region of the Rhine, through whom an inner warmth poured itself out over great numbers of people. Not only did the highest of the clergy experience it, but also those who worked on the land and in the smithies. They were all picked up by this current of the time. Further along the way we find Nicolaus Cusanus (1400–64), and so we can follow along in time until the end of the Middle Ages. Always we find that depth of feeling, that inwardness, that spreads itself over all strata of the population.
If we now compare this time with that following it, with the period that began in the sixteenth century and extends into our own, we notice a tremendous difference. At the outset, we find Copernicus who, through a comprehensive idea, effected a renewal of spiritual life, whose thought has become so incorporated into human thinking that whoever believes something else today is counted a fool. We see Galileo, who discovered the law of gravity by observing the swinging of a church lamp in Pisa. Step by step we follow the passage of time up to the present, and everywhere we find the opposite, the strict opposite, of the Middle Ages. Feeling steadily declines and inwardness disappears. The intellect comes steadily to the fore and men become more clever.
Spiritual science explains the difference between these two epochs and shows us that this change had to be. There is an occult statement that says that the period from Augustine to Calvin was one of mystical involution. What does this mean? From the time of Augustine to the sixteenth century there was an outward unfolding of mystical life; it was outside. But something else was also there — intellectual life hidden in germinal form. It was, as it were, like a sun buried in the spiritual earth that unfolded later after the sixteenth century. The intellect was involuted as the plant is in its seed. Nothing can come forth in the world that was not previously in such an involution. Since the sixteenth century, the intellect has been evolving, the mystical life withdrawing. Now the time has come when this mystical life must again appear, when through the Anthroposophical Movement it will be brought to unfolding, to evolution. In this way involution and evolution disclose themselves alternately everywhere in life.
Whoever stops here, however, is taking only the outer aspect into account. To reckon with the whole we must include a third aspect that stands behind these two. What is this third aspect? Imagine yourself facing a phenomenon in the outer world. You reflect over it. You are here, the outer world is there, and from within your thoughts arise. These thoughts were not there previously. When, for example, you form a thought about a rose, this thought first arises in the moment you make a connection with the rose. You were here, the rose there, and now the thought arises in you. When the image of the rose arises, something quite new has come about. This is also the case in other spheres of life. Imagine the artist, Michelangelo, arranging a group of models. Actually, he did this in the rarest of cases. Michelangelo is here, what he renders is there. Something new — the image — arises in his soul. This is a creation that has nothing to do with involution and evolution. It is something entirely new that arises from the intercourse between a being that can receive and a being that can give. Such new creations are always generated through intercourse of being with being, and such new creations are a beginning.
Recall what we considered yesterday, how thoughts are creative, how they can ennoble the soul, indeed, even work later on forming the body. Whatever a being once thinks, the thought creation, the concept creation, works and actively carries on further. It is a new creation, works and actively carries on further. It is a new creation and at the same time a beginning because it gives rise to consequences. If you have good thoughts today, they are fruitful into the remote future because your soul goes its own way in the spiritual world. Your body returns to the elements and decays. Even if everything through which the thought arose disintegrates, the effects of the thought remain.
Let us return to the example of Michelangelo. His glorious paintings have affected millions of people. These paintings, however, will one day fall into dust and there will be future generations who will never see his creations. But what lived in Michelangelo's soul before his paintings took outer form, what at first existed as new creations in his soul, lives on, remains, and will appear in future stages of development and be given form. Do you know why clouds and stars appear to us today? Because there were beings in preceding eras who had thoughts of clouds and stars. Everything arises out of thought creations.
There you have the number three! In revelation things alternate between involution and evolution. Behind this is a deeply hidden creation, a new creation born out of thought. Everything has arisen out of thought, and the greatest things in the world have gone forth from the thoughts of the Godhead. From what, then, do things arise since ideas are new creations? They arise out of nothing! Three different things are here connected: Creation out of nothingness, which always occurs when you have an idea; the manifestation of this creation; the course of its development in time through the two forms, involution and evolution. This is what is meant when certain religious systems speak of the world created out of nothingness. If today people deride this, it is only because they do not understand what is to be found in these documents.
In the world of manifestation, to sum it up once more, everything alternates between involution and evolution. At the root of this is a hidden creation out of nothingness that unites itself with the two (involution and evolution) to form a triad. This is a union of the Divine with the revealed.
So you can see how we can reflect on the number three. We should not take off and spin pedantic thoughts about it, but we must look for the duality and triad that is to be met at every turn. Then we consider the numerical symbols in the right way, in the Pythagorean sense, and can draw conclusions leading from one to the other. We could also say that light and shadow appear in the manifest world, and behind these lies a third, hidden element.
We come now to the number four. Four is the sign of the cosmos or of creation. As far as we can determine with our present organs, the present planetary condition of the earth is its fourth embodiment. Everything that is manifest to us on an earth such as ours presupposes that this creation is the fourth stage. This is but a special case for all creations that appear thus. They all stand under the sign of the four.
The occultist says that men today stand in the mineral kingdom. What does this mean? Because a man understands only the mineral kingdom, he can only control this kingdom. Using minerals, he can build a house, a clock, and other things because they are subject to mineral laws. For various other activities he does not have this capacity. He cannot, for example, form a plant from out of his own thinking. To be able to do this he would himself have to exist in the plant kingdom. Some time in the future this will be the case. Today men are creators in the mineral realm. Three other kingdoms, the elementary kingdoms, have preceded this; the mineral kingdom is the fourth. All told there are seven.
Men stand in the fourth kingdom. Only here do they reach their actual consciousness oriented to the outer world. On the Moon they were still operating in the third elementary kingdom, on the Sun in the second, and on Saturn in the first. In the future on Jupiter, they will be able to create plants as today they are able to construct a clock. Everything visible in creation stands in the sign of the four. There are many planets that are not to be seen with physical eyes, such as those in the first, second, and third elementary kingdoms. Only when such a planet within creation enters the mineral kingdom can it be seen. Four is, therefore, the number of the cosmos or of creation. With the entrance into the fourth condition a being becomes fully visible to eyes that can see external things.
Five is the number of evil. This will become clear to us if we again consider human beings. In their development men have become fourfold beings and thereby beings of the created world. Here on earth, however, the fifth member of their being, the spirit self, will be added. Were they to remain fourfold beings, they would be constantly directed by the gods — toward the good, of course — but they would never develop their independence. They have become free through the gift of their germinal fifth member, but it is also from this that they have received the ability to do evil. No being can do evil who has not arrived at “fivefoldness.” Wherever we meet with evil, such that it can actually adversely affect our own being, there a fivefoldness is at play. This is the case everywhere, including the outside world, but people are unaware of it, and our present materialistic world view has no conception of the fact that the world can be considered in this way. Actually, there is justification for speaking of evil only where fivefoldness appears. When, one day, medicine will make use of this, it will be able to influence beneficially the course of illness. Part of the treatment would be to study the illness in its development on the first and fifth days after its onset, on the separate days at the fifth hour past midnight, and again during the fifth week. Thus it is always the number five that determines when the physician can best intervene. Before that there is not much else he can do than to let nature take its course, but then he can intervene, helping or harming, because what can justifiably be called good or evil then flows into the world of reality. It is possible in many areas to show that the number five has meaning for outer events.
A man's life consists of periods of seven years — from birth until the change of teeth; puberty; seven or eight years later; toward thirty, followed by the seven year periods throughout the rest of his life. When, one day, he will take these periods into account and consider what had best come toward or stand aloof from him, he will come to know much about preparing a good old age for himself. He can thus bring about good or evil for the remainder of his life. In the early periods of life a great deal can be done by observing certain laws of education. Then, however, there comes an important turning point. This also may become a regression if he is turned loose in life with complete confidence too early. The accepted principle of today that sends young people out into life early is harmful; the fifth period should be passed before this happens. Such ancient occult principles are of great importance. This is why, in the past, at the direction of those who knew something of these things, the years of the apprentice and journeyman had to be completed before one could be called a master.
Seven is the number of perfection. Observation of man himself will make this clear. Today he is under the influence of the number five insofar as he can be good or evil. As a creature of the universe he lives in the number four. When he will have developed all that he holds at present as germ within him, he will become a seven-membered being, perfect in its kind. The number seven rules in the world of colour, in the rainbow; in the world of tone it is found in the scale. Everywhere, in all realms of life, the number seven can be observed as a kind of number of perfection. There is no superstition or magic in this.
Now let us look back again to the number one. Because we have considered other numbers, what is now to be said about one will appear in the right light. The essence of the number one is its indivisibility. Of course, it can be subdivided, for example, 1/3, 2/3, etc. but this can only be accomplished in thinking. In the world, especially in the spiritual world, when you take the two-thirds away, the one-third still remains a part of it. In the same sense it can be said that when some part of God is separated from Him and becomes manifest, the remainder exists as something that still belongs to it. In the Pythagorean sense we can say, “Divide the unity, but never otherwise than to have in your underlying thoughts the remainder connected with what has been separated.”
Take a thin golden plate of glass and look through it. The world will appear yellow because that is the colour that will be reflected. But in white light other colours are also contained. What happens to them? They are absorbed by the object. Hence, a red object appears red because it reflects the red rays and absorbs the rest. It is not possible to separate red from white light without leaving the other colours behind. With this we touch the edge of a world secret. You look at things in a certain way. You see, for instance, a red cloth spread out on the table and visualize at the same time that green is hidden in it. In this way you have accomplished what in the Pythagorean sense is called “The division of the One so that the rest is preserved.” If you carry this out meditatively, if you again and again unite separated parts into a unity, you have brought about a meaningful development through which you can attain spiritual heights.
Mathematicians have an expression for this that holds good in all occult schools:
1 = ( 2 + x ) - ( 1 + x )
This is an occult formula that expresses how Oneness can be divided and the parts so arranged that the One results. It indicates that, as occultists, we should not think of Oneness simply as One, but as parts that we add together again.
So, in this lecture we have examined what is called number symbolism and learned that when we meditate on the world from the standpoint of numbers, we can penetrate deep world secrets.
To complete these remarks let it be said once more that in the fifth week, on the fifth day, or in the fifth hour we can find important things that can be missed or made good. In the seventh week, on the seventh day, or in the seventh hour (or in a definite relationship, say, 3 1/2 because seven is also in this number), something can happen through the thing itself. On the seventh day of an illness, for instance, a fever will take on a definite character; this might also occur on the fourteenth day. These things are always based on number relationships that point to the structure of the world.
Those who steep themselves in the right way in what, in the Pythagorean sense, we may call the “study of numbers,” will learn to understand life and the world in this number symbolism. Of this the lecture today was meant to give you roughly sketched thoughts.