"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: Neo-Platonism

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content, 2

Ramon Llull, Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, Alonso de Proaza, 1512

Ramon Llull (1232-1315), Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, 1512. A Porphyrian Tree of logical relations, original c. 1305, logica nova edition 1512. 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. 

“Nevertheless, such a dictionary-like structure would not allow us to define the difference between a cat and a tiger, or even between a canine and a feline animal. To do this, it is necessary to insert differences into the classification.

Aristotle, in his studies of definition, said that, in order to define the essence of a thing, we should select such attributes which “although each of them has a wider extension than the subject, all together they have not” (Posterior Analytics II, 96a, 35).

Such a structured representation was known in the Middle Ages as Porphyry’s Tree (because it was derived from the Isagoge of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry, living in the second-third century AD), and was still taken as a definitional model by the English searchers for a real character.

In a Porphyrian Tree each genus is divided by two differences which constitute a pair of opposites. Each genus, with the addition of one of its divisive differences, produces an underlying species, which is so defined by its genus and its constitutive difference.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225. 

In figure 10.2, there is an example of how a Porphyrian Tree establishes the difference between human beings and gods (understood as natural forces) and between human beings and beasts.

The terms in upper-case refer to genera and species while those in lower-case refer to differences, that is, to particular accidents which occur only in a given species. We see that the diagram defines a human being as a “rational and mortal animal,” which, in classical terms, is considered a satisfactory definition because there cannot be a rational and mortal animal which is not a human being, and only human beings are so.

Unfortunately this diagram does not tell us anything about the differences between dogs and cats, or horses and wolves, or cats and tigers. In order to obtain new definitions, new differences need to be inserted into the diagram.

Besides this, we can see that, although differences occur in one species, in this tree there are differences, such as “mortal/immortal,” which occur in two different species.

This makes it difficult to know whether or not the same differences will be reproduced at some further point in the tree when it becomes necessary to specify the difference not just between dogs and cats, but also between violets and roses, diamonds and sapphires, and angels and demons.

Even taxonomy as practiced by modern zoology defines through dichotomies. Dogs are distinguished from wolves, and cats from tigers, on the basis of a dichotomy by taxonomic entities known as taxa (figure 10.3).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226. 

Yet modern zoologists are well aware that a system of classification is not the same as a system of definitions.

Classification does not capture the essence of the thing itself; it simply embeds things in a system of increasingly inclusive classes, where the lower nodes are linked by entailment to the upper ones: if something is a Canis familiaris, it cannot but be, by entailment, a Canis, a canid and a fissiped.

But Canidae and Fissipeda are taken as primitives only in the framework of the classification and are not considered as semantic primitives.

Zoologists know that, within their classification, at the node Canidae they must presuppose a set of properties common to the whole family, and that at the node Carnivora there is a set of properties common to the whole order: in the same vein, “mammal” is not a semantic primitive but a technical name which stands for (more or less) “viviparous animal which nourishes its young by the secretion of milk through its mammary glands.”

The name of a substance can be either designative (thus indicating the genus to which that substance belongs) or diagnostic, that is, transparent and self-definatory.

In Species plantarum by Linnaeus (1753), given the two species, Arundo calamogrostis and Arundo arenaria, their designative names show that they belong to the same genus and establish their difference; however, their properties are then made clearer by a diagnostic description which specifies that the Arundo calamogrostis is “calycibus unifloris, cumulo ramoso,” while the Arundo arenaria is “calycibus unifloris, foliis involutiis, mucronato pungentibus” (see Slaughter 1982: 80).

However, the terms used for this description are no longer pseudo-primitives–like those of the metalanguage of taxas; they are terms of the common natural language used for diagnostic purposes.

By contrast, for the authors of a priori languages, each expression had to express all the properties of the designated thing. We shall see how such a difficulty will affect all the projects discussed in the following chapters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 225-7.

Eco: Perfection and Secrecy

Kircher Athanasius, 1667 Magneticum naturae regnum, Frontispiece

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece, Magneticum naturae regnum, Rome, Ignati de Lazaris, 1667, held by the Linda Hall Library, LHL Digital Collections, call number Q155.K58 1667. This engraving is often referred to with the expression, “the world is bound in secret knots.” 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 might think it is a pity that the search for a language that was as perfect as it was universal should lead to such a conception of a tongue reserved for the “happy few.” But it is perhaps nothing more than our “democratic” illusion to imagine that perfection must imply universality.

In order to understand the cultural framework of both Kircher’s Egyptology and Rosicrucian holy languages, it must be remembered that for the Hermetic tradition truth was not usually regarded as accessible to the many. Indeed, there existed a marked tendency to believe that what is true is unknown and hardly knowable, if not to a restricted elite (cf. Eco 1990).

There is a radical difference between the gnostic and Neo-Platonist ideas of late antiquity (as well as their Renaissance versions–which survived in the Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Kircher) and the Christian message, as it was proclaimed throughout most of the Middle Ages.

For medieval Christianity, salvation was promised to the meek and humble in spirit, and did not require any special knowledge: everyone can understand what is required in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven.

Medieval teaching reduced the aura of mystery that accompanied the revelation–which was explained by formulae, parables and images that even the uneducated might grasp: truth was considered effable, therefore public.

For Hermetic thought, instead, the cosmic drama could only be understood by an aristocracy of wisdom, able to decipher the hieroglyphs of the universe; the main characteristic of truth was its ineffability: it could not be expressed in simple words, was ambiguous by nature, was to be found through the coincidence of opposites, and could be expressed only by initiatic revelations.

Within this tradition, public accessibility was simply not a criterion by which a perfect language was judged. If one does not understand this point, one cannot understand why the cryptographers of this period dedicated their ciphers to grand-dukes deep in military campaigns and political machinations, presenting them as arcane suggestions.

Perhaps this is all merely another manifestation of the natural hypocrisy of a century fascinated by dissimulation, a feature that constitutes the continuing charm of baroque civilization.

It remains uncertain if that celebrated book Breviarium politicorum secundum rubricas Mazarinicas (1684) really collects Mazarin’s political thoughts or is a libel invented to defame him: in whatever case, it certainly reflects the image of a man of politics in the 1600’s.

It is notable that in the chapter entitled “Reading and writing” it recommends that, if one needs to write in a public place, it is convenient to place upon a lectern several already written pages as if one intended to copy them out, letting them be visible and concealing under them the paper upon which one is really writing, guarded in such a way that no one who approaches you will be able to read it.

Resorting to ciphers is suggested, but in such a way that at first glance the message looks understandable and provides irrelevant information (the canonical reference is to Trithemius).

Not only must the message be translated in a secret writing, but this writing must also conceal its own secrecy, because a cipher that blatantly appears as such can arouse suspicion and encourage decipherment.

Thus on the one hand the mystic who writes about perfect and holy languages winks his eye at the politician who will use this language as his secret code; on the other hand the cryptographer sells to the politician a cipher (that is, an instrument of power and dominion) that for him, the Hermetic initiate, is also a key to supernatural truths.

Such a man was Johann Valentin Andreae, whom many have considered (and many still do consider) to be, if not the author, at least the inspirer of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Andreae was a Lutheran mystic and writer of utopian works, like the Christianopolis of 1619, similar in spirit to those of Bacon and Campanella.

Edighoffer (1982: 175ff) has noted that many of his authentic works, like the Chemical Weddings, abound with ciphered expressions, according to the expressed principle that “Arcana publicata vilescunt” and that one ought not to cast pearls before swine.

In the same vein Andreae used ciphered messages in his correspondence with Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. Edighoffer remarks that there is nothing surprising in this: it was a correspondence filled with political observations, one, moreover, that took place during the Thirty Years War, when the difference between political and religious comments was minimal and the risks in both were the same.

In the light of these, as it were, “private” practices of the Rosicrucians, their public appeals concerning the need to use a secret language to inaugurate a universal reform must seem even more ambiguous.

They are so to such an extent as to make credible what not only modern historians but even the supposed authors of the manifestos themselves had always claimed: the manifestos were nothing but a joke, a sophomoric game, an exercise in literary pastiche made up of all the buzz-topics of the day: the search for the language of Adam, the dream of a sensual language, glossolalic illusions, cryptography, kabbala . . . And since everything went into this pot au feu, anything could be fished out again.

Thus, as will always happen when the specter of mystery is raised, there were those who read the Rosicrucian manifestos “paranoiacally,” discovering in them what they wanted to believe anyway, and needed to rediscover continually.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 190-3.

Eco: The Arbor Scientarium

Ramon Llull, Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus, 1304, first published 1512

Ramon Llull, Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus, 1304, first published 1512. 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.     

“The Lullian art was destined to seduce later generations who imagined that they had found in it a mechanism to explore the numberless possible connections between dignities and principles, principles and questions, questions and virtues or vices.

Why not even construct a blasphemous combination stating that goodness implies an evil God, or eternity a different envy? Such a free and uncontrolled working of combinations and permutations would be able to produce any theology whatsoever.

Yet the principles of faith, and the belief in a well-ordered cosmos, demanded that such forms of combinatorial incontinence be kept repressed.

Lull’s logic is a logic of first, rather than second, intentions; that is, it is a logic of our immediate apprehension of things rather than of our conceptions of them. Lull repeats in various places that if metaphysics considers things as they exist outside our minds, and if logic treats them in their mental being, the art can treat them from both points of view.

Consequently, the art could lead to more secure conclusions than logic alone, “and for this reason the artist of this art can learn more in a month than a logician can in a year.” (Ars magna, X, 101).

What this audacious claim reveals, however, is that, contrary to what some later supposed, Lull’s art is not really a formal method.

The art must reflect the natural movement of reality; it is therefore based on a notion of truth that is neither defined in the terms of the art itself, nor derived from it logically. It must be a conception that simply reflects things as they actually are.

Lull was a realist, believing in the existence of universals outside the mind. Not only did he accept the real existence of genera and species, he believed in the objective existence of accidental forms as well.

Thus Lull could manipulate not only genera and species, but also virtues, vices and every other sort of differentia as well; at the same time, however, all those substances and accidents could not be freely combined because their connections were determined by a rigid hierarchy of beings (cf. Rossi 1960: 68).

In his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria of 1666, Leibniz wondered why Lull had limited himself to a restricted number of elements. In many of his works, Lull had, in truth, also proposed systems based on 10, 16, 12 or 20 elements, finally settling on 9. But the real question ought to be not why Lull fixed upon this or that number, but why the number of elements should be fixed at all.

In respect of Lull’s own intentions, however, the question is beside the point; Lull never considered his to be an art where the combination of the elements of expression was free rather than precisely bound in content.

Had it not been so, the art would not have appeared to Lull as a perfect language, capable of illustrating a divine reality which he assumed from the outset as self-evident and revealed.

The art was the instrument to convert the infidels, and Lull had devoted years to the study of the doctrines of the Jews and Arabs. In his Compendium artis demonstrativa (“De fine hujus libri“) Lull was quite explicit: he had borrowed his terms from the Arabs.

Lull was searching for a set of elementary and primary notions that Christians held in common with the infidels. This explains, incidentally, why the number of absolute principles is reduced to nine (the tenth principle, the missing letter A, being excluded from the system, as it represented perfection or divine unity).

One is tempted to see in Lull’s series the ten Sefirot of the kabbala, but Plazteck observes (1953-4: 583) that a similar list of dignities is to be found in the Koran. Yates (1960) identified the thought of John Scot Erigene as a direct source, but Lull might have discovered analogous lists in various other medieval Neo-Platonic texts–the commentaries of pseudo-Dionysius, the Augustinian tradition, or the medieval doctrine of the transcendental properties of being (cf. Eco 1956).

The elements of the art are nine (plus one) because Lull thought that the transcendental entities recognized by every monotheistic theology were ten.

Lull took these elementary principles and inserted them into a system which was already closed and defined, a system, in fact, which was rigidly hierarchical–the system of the Tree of Science.

To put this in other terms, according to the rules of Aristotelian logic, the syllogism “all flowers are vegetables, X is a flower, therefore X is a vegetable” is valid as a piece of formal reasoning independent of the actual nature of X.

For Lull, it mattered very much whether X was a rose or a horse. If X were a horse, the argument must be rejected, since it is not true that a horse is a vegetable. The example is perhaps a bit crude; nevertheless, it captures very well the idea of the great chain of being (cf. Lovejoy 1936) upon which Lull based his Arbor scientiae (1296).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 64-7.

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism



Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, Paris. 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.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.


Tracing the Kabbalistic Idea

Next came Guillaume Postel of Paris (1510-1581), who published the Sefer Yazira with a Latin translation and a commentary. He also translated several sections of the Zohar. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth compiled an extensive anthology of kabbalistic works in Kabbala Denudata (1677-1684), followed by the German mystic Jacob Boehme. Dan characterizes all of these as “Lurianic kabbalah.” He cites no specific texts by Boehme, but states that “In England, some thinkers in the Cambridge school of neo-platonists–Henry More and Robert Fludd, among many others–used kabbalah.”

He then refers to theologian Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont from Holland, and he claims that Mercurius “collaborated in this field with Gottfried Wilhem Leibnitz (1646-1716).” He introduces alchemy into the mix, saying that Gershom Scholem “described the work of the german philosopher Franz Josef Molitor (1779-1861) on the philosophy of tradition as “the crowning and final achievement of the Christian kabbalah.”

Dan then notes that after the seventeenth century, kabbalah, employing various spellings, became a “common term” that indicated in an “imprecise manner anything that was ancient, mysterious, magical, and to some extent dangerous.” The term “cabal” then emerged, describing secret groups engaged in conspiracies. He observes that interest in esoterica diminished during the Enlightenment, but then resurged in the nineteenth century.

Amazingly, he observes that “Carl Gustav Jung could…combine admiration of the kabbalah with enmity toward Jewish culture.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 66-70.

%d bloggers like this: