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Tag: 1958

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria & Infinite Worlds, 3


Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a mnemonic diagram, which appears towards the end of Cantus circaeus (Incantation of Circe), 1582, which also appears on the cover of Opere mnemotecniche, Vol. 1: De umbris idearum, 1582, Rita Sturlese, et al, ed. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In her critical edition of De umbris (1991), Sturlese gives an interpretation of the use of the wheels that differs sharply from the “magical” interpretation given by Yates (1972). For Yates, the wheels generated syllables by which one memorizes images to be used for magical purposes.

Sturlese inverts this: for her, it is the images that serve to recall the syllables. Thus, for Sturlese, the purpose of the entire mnemonical apparatus was the memorization of an infinite multitude of words through the use of a fixed, and relatively limited, number of images.

If this is true, then it is easy to see that Bruno’s system can no longer be treated as an art where alphabetic combinations lead to images (as if it were a scenario-generating machine); rather, it is a system that leads from combined images to syllables.

Such a system not only aids memorization but, equally, permits the generation of an almost unlimited number of words–be they long and complex like incrassatus or permagnus, or difficult like many Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Persian or Arabic terms (De umbris, 169), or rare like scientific names of grass, trees, minerals, seeds or animal genera (De umbris, 152). The system is thus designed to generate languages–at least at the level of nomenclature.

Which interpretation is correct? Does Bruno concatenate the sequence CROCITUS to evoke the image of Pilumnus advancing rapidly on the back of a donkey with a bandage on his arm and a parrot on his head, or has he assembled these images so as to memorize CROCITUS?

In the “Prima Praxis” (De umbris, 168-72) Bruno tells us that it is not indispensable to work with all five wheels because, in most known languages, it is rare to find words containing syllables with four or five letters.

Furthermore, where such syllables do occur (for instance, in words like trans-actum or stu-prans), it is usually eash to devise some artifice that will obviate the necessity of using the fourth and fifth wheel.

We are not interested in the specific short cuts that Bruno used except to say that they cut out several billion possibilities. It is the very existence of such short cuts that seems significant.

If the syllabic sequences were expressing complex images, there should be no limit for the length of the syllables. On the contrary, if the images were expressing syllables, there would be an interest in limiting the length of the words, following the criteria of economy already present in most natural languages (even though there is no formal limit, since Leibniz will later remark that there exists in Greek a thirty-one-letter word).

Besides, if the basic criterion of every art of memory is to recall the unfamiliar through the more familiar, it seems more reasonable that Bruno considered the “Egyptian” traditional images as more familiar than the words of exotic languages.

In this respect, there are some passages in De umbris that are revealing: “Lycas in convivium cathenatus presentabat tibi AAA. . . . Medusa, cum insigni Plutonis presentabit AMO” (“Lycaon enchained in a banquet presents to you AAA . . . Medusa with the sign of Pluto presents AMO”).

Since all these names are in the nominative case, it is evident that they present the letters to the user of the system and not the other way around. This also follows from a number of passages in the Cantus circaeus where Bruno uses perceivable images to represent mathematical or abstract concepts that might not otherwise be imaginable or memorizable (cf. Vasoli 1958: 284ff).

That Bruno bequeathed all this to the Lullian posterity can be seen from further developments of Lullism.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 137-9.

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria and Infinite Worlds


Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), The Trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition, bronze relief, Campo de’Fiori, Rome. This bas relief graces the pedestal of the statue of Bruno at Campo de’Fiori in Rome. The collected works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) are in the Bibliotheca Bruniana Electronica at the Warburg Institute, with others at the Esoteric Archives. This photo dated 2006 by Jastrow is in the public domain. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.    

Giordano Bruno’s cosmological vision presented a world without ends, whose circumference, as Nicholas of Cusa had already argued, was nowhere to be found, and whose center was everywhere, at whatever point the observer chose to contemplate the universe in its infinity and substantial unity.

The panpsychism of Bruno had a Neoplatonic foundation: there was but a single divine breath, one principle of motion pervading the whole of the infinite universe, determining it in its infinite variety of forms.

The master idea of an infinite number of worlds was compounded with the notion that every earthly object can also serve as the Platonic shade of other ideal aspects of the universe. Thus every object exists not only in itself, but as a possible sign, deferral, image, emblem, hieroglyph of something else.

This worked also by contrast: an image can lead us back to the unity of the infinite even through its opposite. As Bruno wrote in his Eroici furori, “To contemplate divine things we need to open our eyes by using figures, similitudes, or any of the other images that the Peripatetics knew under the name of phantasms” (Dialoghi italiani, Florence: Sansei, 1958: 1158).

Where they did not emerge directly from his own inflamed imagination, Bruno chose images found in the Hermetic repertoire. These served as storehouses of revelations because of a naturally symbolic relationship that held between them and reality.

Their function was no longer, as in previous arts of memory, that of merely helping to order information for ease of recall, or this was, at least, by now a minor aspect: their function was rather that of helping to understand. Bruno’s images permitted the mind to discover the essence of things and their relations to each other.

The power of revelation stored inside these images was founded on their origin in far-off Egypt. Our distant progenitors worshipped cats and crocodiles because “a simple divinity found in all things, a fecund nature, a mother watching over the universe, expressed in many different ways and forms, shines through different subjects and takes different names” (Lo spaccio della bestia trionfante, Dialoghi italiani, 780-2).

But these images possess more than the simple capacity to reawaken our dormant imagination: they possess an authentic power to effect magical operations on their own, and functioned, in other words, in exactly the same way as the talismans of Ficino.

It is possible, of course, to take many of Bruno’s magical claims in a metaphorical sense, as if he was merely describing, according to the sensibility of his age, intellectual operations. It is also possible to infer that these images had the power to pull Bruno, after prolonged concentration, into a state of mystic ecstasy (cf. Yates 1964: 296).

Still, it is difficult to ignore the fact that some of Bruno’s strongest claims about the theurgic potential of seals appeared in a text that bore the significant title of De Magia:

“nor even are all writings of the same utility as these characters which, by their very configuration, seem to indicated things themselves. For example, there are signs that are mutually inclined to one another, that regard each other and embrace one another; these constrain us to love.

Then there are the opposite signs, signs which repel each other so violently that we are induced to hatred and to separation, becoming so hardened, incomplete, and broken as to produce in us ruin. There are knots which bind, and there are separated characters which release. [ . . . ]

These signs do not have a fixed and determined form. Anyone who, obeying his own furor, or the dictates of his soul, naturally creates his own images, be these of things desired or things to hold in contempt, cannot help but represent these images to himself and to his spirit as if the imagined things were really present.

Thus he experiences his own images with a power that he would not feel were he to represent these things to himself in the form of words, either in elegant oration, or in writing.

Such were the well-defined letters of the ancient Egyptians, which they called hieroglyphs or sacred characters. [ . . . ] by which they were able to enter into colloquies with the gods and to accomplish remarkable feats with them. [ . . . ]

And so, just as, where there lacks a common tongue, men of one race are unable to have colloquies with those of another, but must resort instead to gestures, so relations of any sort between ourselves and certain powers would be impossible were we to lack the medium of definite signs, seals, figures, characters, gestures, and other ceremonies.”

(Opera latine conscripta, Naples-Florence, 1879-1891, vol. III: 39-45).

Concerning the specific iconological material that Bruno employs, we find figures deriving directly from the Hermetic tradition, such as the Thirty-six Decans of the Zodiac, others drawn from mythology, necromantic diagrams that recall Agrippa or John Dee, Lullian suggestions, animals, plants and allegorical figures deriving from the repertoire of emblems and devices.

This is a repertoire with an extraordinary importance in the history of iconology, where the ways in which a certain seal, for example, refers back to a specific idea are largely governed by rhetorical criteria: phonetic similarities (a horse, equus, can correspond to an honest, aequus, man); the concrete for the abstract (a Roman soldier for Rome); antecedent for the consequent; accident for subject (or vice versa); and so on.

Sometimes the analogy  is based upon the similarity of the initial syllable (asinus for asyllum); and certainly Bruno did not know that this procedure, as we shall see in chapter 7, was followed by the Egyptians themselves when using their hieroglyphs.

At other times the relations might be based on kabbalistic techniques such as anagrams or paronomasias (like palatio standing for Latio: cf. Vasoli 1958: 285-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 132-5.

Eco: Lullian Kabbalism


Unknown artist, Roma 1493, depicting the city of Rome as it appeared in that year. This woodcut was published in Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), Schedelsche Weltchronik, Nürnberg, 1493, on folio lvii verso and lviii recto. Known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle, or Schedel’s World Chronicle, the work commissioned by Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446-1503) was lushly illustrated with the first depictions of many cities. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“We have now reached a point where we must collect what seem the various membra disiecta of the traditions we have been examining and see how they combined to produce a Lullian revival.

We can begin with Pico della Mirandola: he cited Lull in his Apologia of 1487. Pico, of course, would have been aware that there existed analogies between the permutational techniques of Lull and the temurah (which he called “revolutio alphabetaria“).

He was acute enough, however, to realize that they were two different things. In the Quaestio Sexta of the Apologia, where Pico proved that no science demonstrates the divinity of Christ better than magic and the kabbala, he distinguished two doctrines which might be termed kabbalist only in a figurative (transumptive) sense: one was the supreme natural magic; the other was the hokmat ha-zeruf of Abulafia that Pico termed an “ars combinandi,” adding that “apud nostros dicitur ars Raymundi licet forte diverso modo procedat” (“it is commonly designated as the art of Raymond, although it proceeds by a different method”).

Despite Pico’s scruples, a confusion between Lull and the kabbala was, by now, inevitable. It is from this time that the pathetic attempts of the Christian kabbalists to give Lull a kabbalistic reading begin.

In the 1598 edition of Lull’s works there appeared, under Lull’s name, a short text entitled De auditu kabbalistico: this was nothing other than Lull’s Ars brevis into which had been inserted a number of kabbalistic references.

It was supposedly first published in Venice in 1518 as an opusculum Raimundicum. Thorndike (1923-58: v, 325) has discovered the text, however, in manuscript form, in the Vatican Library, with a different title and with an attribution to Petrus de Maynardis.

The manuscript is undated, but, according to Thorndike, its calligraphy dates it to the fifteenth century. The most likely supposition is that it is a composition from the end of that century in which the suggestions first made by Pico were taken up and mechanically applied (Scholem et al. 1979: 40-1).

In the following century, the eccentric though sharp-witted Tommaso Garzoni di Bagnacavallo saw through the imposture. In his Piazza universale du tutte le arti (1589: 253), he wrote:

“The science of Raymond, known to very few, might be described with the term, very improper in itself, of Cabbala. About this, there is a notion common to all scholars, indeed, to the whole world, that in the Cabbala can be found teachings concerning everything [ . . . ] and for this reason one finds in print a little booklet ascribed to him [Lull] (though on this matter people beyond the Alps write many lies) bearing the title De Auditu Cabalistico. This is nothing but a brief summary of the Arte Magna as abbreviated, doubtlessly by Lull himself, into the Arte Breve.”

Still, the association persisted. Among various examples, we might cite Pierre Morestel, who published an Artis kabbalisticae, sive sapientiae diviniae academia in 1621, no more than a modest compilation from the De auditu.

Except for the title, and the initial identification of the Ars of Lull with the kabbala, there was nothing kabbalistic in it. Yet Morestel still thought it appropriate to include the preposterous etymology for the word kabbala taken from De auditu: “cum sit nomen compositum ex duabus dictionibus, videlicet abba et ala. Abba enim arabice idem quod pater latine, et ala arabice idem est quod Deus meus” (“as this name is composed of two terms, that is abba and ala. Abba is an Arabic word meaning Latin pater; ala is also Arabic, and means Deus meus“).

For this reason, kabbala means “Jesus Christ.”

The cliché of Lull the kabbalist reappears with only minimum variation throughout the writings of the Christian kabbalists. Gabriel Naudé, in his Apologie pour tous les grands hommes qui ont esté accuséz de magie (1625), energetically rebutted the charge that the poor Catalan mystic engaged in the black arts.

None the less, French (1972: 49) has observed that by the late Renaissance, the letters from B to K, used by Lull, had become associated with Hebrew letters, which for the kabbalists were names of angels or of divine attributes.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 128-30.

(Editorial Note: wallowing in the bibliography of Raimon Llull is not for the meek. I encountered many culs-de-sac and could not find digital versions of many of the works mentioned by Eco in this segment. If you have URLs to works which are not linked in this excerpt from Eco, please share them using the comment feature. Thank you.)

Eco: Kabbalism & Lullism in the Steganographies


Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Polygraphiae libri sex, Basel, 1518. Courtesy of the Shakespeare Folger Library as file number 060224. Joseph H. Peterson at the Esoteric Archives digitized a copy of the complimentary work on steganography held by the British Library in 1997. That work is listed as Trithemius, Steganographic: Ars per occultam Scripturam animi sui voluntatem absentibus aperiendi certu, 4to, Darmst. 1621. London, British Library. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.   

“A peculiar mixture of kabbalism and neo-Lullism arose in the search for secret writings–steganographies. The progenitor of this search, which was to engender innumerable contributions between humanism and the baroque, was the prolific Abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516).

Trithemius made no references to Lull in his works, relying instead on kabbalistic tradition, advising his followers, for instance, that before attempting to decipher a passage in secret writing they should invoke the names of angels such as Pamersiel, Padiel, Camuel and Aseltel.

On a first reading, these seem no more than mnemonic aids that can help either in deciphering or in ciphering messages in which, for example, only the initial letters of words, or only the initial letters of even-numbered words (and so on according to different sets of rules), are to be considered.

Thus Trithemius elaborated texts such as “Camuel Busarchia, menaton enatiel, meran sayr abasremon.” Trithemius, however, played his game of kabbala and steganography with a great deal of ambiguity. His Poligraphia seems simply a manual for encipherment, but with his posthumous Steganographia (1606 edition) the matter had become more complex.

Many have observed (cf. Walker 1958: 86-90, or Clulee 1988: 137) that if, in the first two books of this last work, we can interpret Trithemius‘ kabbalist references in purely metaphorical terms, in the third book there are clear descriptions of magic rituals.

Angels, evoked through images modeled in wax, are subjected to requests and invocations, or the adept must write his own name on his forehead with ink mixed with the juice of a rose, etc.

In reality, true steganography would develop as a technique of composing messages in cipher for political or military ends. It is hardly by chance that this was a technique that emerged during the period of conflict between emerging national states and flourished under the absolutist monarchies.

Still, even in this period, a dash of kabbalism gave the technique an increased spice.

It is possible that Trithemius‘ use of concentric circles rotating freely within each other owed nothing to Lull: Trithemius employed this device not, as in Lull, to make discoveries, but simply to generate or (decipher) cryptograms.

Every circle contains the letters of the alphabet; if one rotates the inner wheel so as to make the inner A correspond, let us say, to the outer C, the inner B will be enciphered as D, the inner C as E and so on (see also our ch. 9).

It seems probable that Trithemius was conversant enough with the kabbala to know certain techniques of temurah, by which words or phrases might be rewritten, substituting for the original letters the letters of the alphabet in reverse (Z for A, Y for B, X for C, etc.).

This technique was called the “atbash sequence;” it permitted, for example, the tetragrammaton YHWH to be rewritten as MSPS. Pico cited this example in one of his Conclusiones (cf. Wirzubski 1989: 43).

But although Trithemius did not cite him, Lull was cited by successive steganographers. The Traité des chiffres by Vigenère (1587) not only made specific references to Lullian themes, but also connected them as well to the factorial calculations first mentioned in the Sefer Yezirah.

However, Vigenère simply follows in the footsteps of Trithemius, and, afterwards, of Giambattista Della Porta (with his 1563 edition of De furtivis literarum notis, amplified in subsequent editions): he constructed tables containing 400 pairs generated by 20 letters; these he combined in triples to produce what he was pleased to call a “mer d’infini chiffrements à guise d’un autre Archipel tout parsemé d’isles . . . un embrouillement plus malaisé à s’en depestrer de tous les labrinthes de Crete ou d’Egypte” (pp. 193-4), a sea of infinite cryptograms like a new Archipelago all scattered with isles, an imbroglio harder to escape from than all the labyrinths of Crete and Egypt.

The fact that these tables were accompanied by lists of mysterious alphabets, some invented, some drawn from Middle Eastern scripts, and all presented with an air of secrecy, helped keep alive the occult legend of Lull the kabbalist.

There is another reason why steganography was propelling a Lullism that went far beyond Lull himself. The steganographers had little interest in the content (or the truths) expressed by their combinations.

Steganography was not a technique designed to discover truth: it was a device by which elements of a given expression-substance (letters, numbers or symbols of any type) might be correlated randomly (in increasingly differing ways so as to render their decipherment more arduous) with the elements of another expression-substance.

It was, in short, merely a technique in which one symbol replaced another. This encouraged formalism: steganographers sought ever more complex combinatory stratagems, but all that mattered was engendering new expressions through an increasingly mind-boggling number of purely syntactic operations. The letters were dealt with as unbound variables.

By 1624, in his Cryptometrices et cryptographie libri IX, Gustavus Selenus was designing a wheel of 25 concentric volvelles, each of them presenting 24 pairs of letters. After this, he displays a series of tables that record around 30,000 triples. From here, the combinatory possibilities become astronomical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 126-8.

Eco: Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture


Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), a bust published in “Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Neoplatonism,” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, on This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Hebrew was not the only beneficiary of the passion for archaic wisdom that gripped scholars from the end of the Middle Ages onwards. The dawn of the modern era also saw a revival of interest in Greek thought and in the Greek’s fascination with Egypt and its mysterious hieroglyphic script (see ch. 7).

Greek texts were rediscovered and enthusiastically assigned an antiquity they did not, in fact, possess. They included the Orphic Hymns, attributed to Orpheus, but, in fact, written probably between the second and third centuries AD; the Chaldean Oracles, also written in the second century, but attributed to Zoroaster; and, above all, the Corpus Hermeticum.

This was a compilation acquired in 1460 for Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, and immediately rushed to Marsilio Ficino so that he might translate it.

This last compilation, as was later shown, was the least archaic of all. In 1614, by using stylistic evidence and by comparing the innumerable contradictions among the documents, Isaac Casaubon, in his De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis, showed that it was a collection of texts by different authors, all writing in late Hellenistic times under the influences of Egyptian spirituality.

None of this was apparent in 1460, however. Ficino took the texts to be archaic, directly written by the mythical Hermes or Mercurius Trismegistus.

Ficino was struck to discover that his account of the creation of the universe resembled that of Genesis, yet–he said–we should not be amazed, because Mercurius could be none other than Moses himself (Theologica platonica, 8, 1).

This enormous historical error, as Yates says, was destined to have surprising results (1964: 18-9).

The Hermetic tradition provided a magico-astrological  account of the cosmos. Celestial bodies exercise their power and influence over earthly things, and by knowing the planetary laws one can not only predict these influences, but also manipulate them.

There exists a relation of sympathy between the universal macrocosm and the human microcosm, a latticework of forces which it is possible to harness through astral magic.

Astral magic was practiced through words and other signs, because there is a language by which human beings can command the stars. Such miracles can be performed through “talismans,” that is, images which might guarantee safe recovery, health or physical prowess.

In his De vita coelitus comparanda, Ficino provided a wealth of details concerning how such talismans were to be worn; how certain plants linked by sympathy to certain stars were to be consumed; how magical ceremonies were to be celebrated with the proper perfumes, garments and songs.

Talismanic magic works because the bond which unites the occult virtues of earthly things and the celestial bodies which instilled them is expressed by signatures, that is, formal aspects of material things that recall certain features (properties or powers) of the corresponding heavenly bodies.

God himself has rendered the sympathies between macrocosm and microcosm perceptible by stamping a mark, a sort of seal, onto each object of this world (cf. Thorndike 1923-58; Foucault 1966; Couliano 1984; Bianchi 1987).

In a text that can stand as the foundation for such a doctrine of signatures, Paracelsus declared that:

“The ars signata teaches the way in which the true and genuine names must be assigned to all things, the same names that Adam, the Protoplastus, knew in the complete and perfect way [ . . . ] which show, at the same time, the virtue, the power, and the property of this or that thing. [ . . . ]

This is the signator who signs the horns of the stag with branches so that his age may be known: the stag having as many years as his horns have branches. [ . . . ] This is the signator who covers the tongue of a sick sow with excrescences, so that her impurity may be known; if the tongue is impure so the whole body is impure.

This is the signator who tints the clouds with divers colors, whereby it is possible to forecast the changes of the heavens. (De natura rerum, I, 10, “De signatura rerum“).”

Even the Middle Ages were aware that “habent corpora omnia ad invisibilia bona simulitudinem” (Richard of Saint Victor, Benjamin Major, PL, 196, 90): all bodies possess qualities which give them similarities with invisible goods.

In consequence, every creature of the universe was an image, a mirror reflecting our terrestrial and supernatural destinies. Nevertheless, it did not occur to the Middle Ages that these images might speak in a perfect language.

They required interpretation, explication and comment; they needed to be enclosed in a rational didactic framework where they could be elucidated, deciphered, in order to make clear the mystical affinities between a symbol and its content.

For Renaissance Platonism, by contrast, the relation between the images and the ideas to which they referred was considered so intuitively direct that the very distinction between a symbol and its meaning disappeared (see Gombrich 1972: “Icones Symbolicae,” v).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 117-9.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 2


MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.


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