Unparalleled is the wisdom contained in the Tetractys as an illustration of the forces and energies that constellate the origin, evolution and destiny of the Cosmos.
Tetra in Greek means “four”. The Tetractys is a geometric figure consisting of the first four integers (numbers 1,2,3,4) arranged in a triangle of ten points. Examining the meaning of each number of the Tetractys, allows us a deeper insight into the peculiar synergy of geometry, number and philosophical meaning that is characteristic for Hellenistic cosmology henceforth.
Pythagoras gave us this most succinct tool for understanding the cosmos, its qualities, structure and function in a unique teaching device: the Tetractys. Iamblichus, (c.AD 250-325), one of the most prominent Neo-Platonist philosophers, writes in his famous compendium on Pythagorean Philosophy:
“The Tetractys is an equilateral triangle formed from the sequence of the first ten numbers aligned in four rows. It is both a mathematical idea and a me6aphysical symbol that embraces within itself – in seed-like form – the principles of the natural world, the harmony of the cosmos, the ascent to the divine, and the mysteries of the divine realm. “ Iamblichus
In contrast to its complex and profound significance, the visual appearance of this symbol is utterly simple; indeed, it can easily be traced with a stick or by arranging stones in the sand. Yet this simplicity is pregnant with meaning and insight:
“Bless us, divine number, thou who generated gods and men! O holy, holy Tetractys, thou that containest the root and source of the eternally flowing cosmos! For the divine number begins with the profound, pure unity until it comes to the holy four; then it begets the mother of all, the all-comprising, all-bounding, the first-born, the never-swerving, the never-tiring holy ten, the keyholder of all”
For the Pythagoreans, number is a living, metaphysical presence, a reality to be experienced, not a tool to be used. For Pythagoras, numbers represent universal principles as real as e.g. light or sound, they are divine beings, the source and the root of all things, a viewpoint that is substantiated by modern physics that expresses energy through numerically defined frequency and amplitude.
The Tetractys represents the organization of space and time
1. The first row represented zero-dimension, eternity (no time) and omnipresence – no space.
2. the second row represents time which begets space
3. the third row represents time/space interaction i.e. creation
4. The fourth row represents the qualities of creation in form of the elements.
The Tetractys symbolizes the harmony of the Cosmos. It symbolizes the four elements, fire, water, air and earth. The points of the four rows add up to ten, which is unity of a higher order.
Exploration of the Pythagorean Numbers as expression of the cosmic order.
The Monad , the number One, (from Greek μονάς monas, “unit”; monos, “alone”), according to the Pythagoreans, was a term for the first being or God, or the totality of all beings, Monad being the source or the One meaning without division. The Gnostics saw in the number One the Supreme Being, Aiōn teleos, Bythos (Depth or Profundity, Βυθός), Proarchē (Before the Beginning, προαρχή), and Hē Archē (The Beginning, ἡ ἀρχή) and the ineffable parent. The One is the high source of all divine emanation, the region of light. All numbers of the Tetractys are primordial emanations of the One.
In Neoplatonic thought, the primeval Source of Being is the One and the Infinite, as opposed to the many and the finite. It is the source of all life, and therefore absolute causality and the only ultimately real existence. It is beyond all created things, albeit their source. Therefore, the Monad cannot be known through reasoning or understanding, since only what is part of Creation or Being can be thus known according to Plato. Being beyond existence, it is the most real reality, source of less real things. It is, moreover, the Good, insofar as all finite things have their purpose in it, and are designed to flow back to it.
The One has no attributes of any kind; it is being without magnitude, without thought; in strict propriety, indeed, we ought not to speak of it as existing; it is “above existence,” “above goodness.” It is also active force as the primeval Source of Being is perpetually producing something else, without alteration, or motion, or diminution of itself. This production is not a physical process, but an emission of force. Directly or indirectly, everything is brought forth by the “One.”
In it all things, so far as they have being, are divine, and God is all in all. Derived existence, however, is not like the original Source of Being itself, but is subject to a law of diminishing completeness. It is indeed an image and reflection of the first Source of Being; but the further the line of successive projections is prolonged the smaller is its share in the true existence. Each lower stage of being is united with the “One” by all the higher stages, and receives its share of reality only by transmission through them. All derived existence, however, has a longing for the higher, and bends towards it so far as its nature will permit.
The Dyad or the number two represents the principle of “double-ness” or “otherness” or polarity. Neoplatonic philosophers like Plotinus treated the dyad as a second cause (demiurge), which was the divine mind (nous) that by its reflective nature causes matter to appear or become perceivable. The potential emanating in form of the dyad is expressed in the figure of the vesica piscis and is the power of all duality, contrast, and sameness for example, male/female, heaven/earth, left/right. It also contains the idea of the twin (didymos) and the mirror image. It is the generative matrix when seen in conjunction with the Monad, the One, with which the Dyad forms the supernal Triad.
The Triad, the number three, was considered ‘the most beautiful number’, as it is the first number to equal the sum of all the terms above it. The three is the child of the two, the product and emanation of the Divine Duality Matrix. With the triad, space is introduced, plane geometry becomes possible and opens the realms of proportion and of harmony. The Three was considered the first true“number” by the Pythagoreans. As the mother of time and space in its generative powers, it becomes manifest in the Triad. It introduces a mean between the polarity of the Two and it wields the power to bring order and harmony to diverse and polarized positions. In the Pythagorean tradition, the soul is the mean that unites the mortal and immortal and binds them into a whole.
The Tetrad, the number 4, represents the final stage of completion because the first four numbers make a sum of ten (1+2+3+4=10) which is the completion of one cycle of manifestation and the beginning of a new one. That means, that with the base line of the tetractys, which completes the figure. With this line, the sum of all the rows (levels) now is the number ten, which repeats the number one, yet on another level. The evolutionary aspect of the cosmos is hidden in the perfection of maniferstation.
Geometrically, the tetrad is expressed by the square or cube, as well as the four sides of a tetrahedron (pyramid). Metaphysically, the Tetrad represents matter and the four primary essences or elements, air, earth, fire and water, which are the essential building blocks’ of the manifest world. In the tetrad time and space are linked, harmonized in the three and brought into manifest reality in the four.
The Tetractys, the Cosmos and Hermetic Medicine
The numerical intelligence of the Universe is represented by the Tetractys. It illustrates the descent of spirit into matter. Its arrangement guides us to contemplate the Divine Source and its emanating polarity or trinity of Spirit and its extension via the soul to its descent into matter. Upon further contemplation we realize that this symbol also illustrates the ascent towards the One Source upwards from the manifest realm of material phenomena (Body) through an understanding of its guiding creative principles in the Triad (Soul). From there we learn to recognize the primordial dyadic forces of polarity which in turn reveal a glimpse of the divine principle, the Monad, the ‘source and root’ of all Creation.
In summary, the tetractys is an illustration of the origin, structure and evolution of the cosmos, integrating the meta-physical and the physical, material paradigms insofar as the latter is contained in and governed by the cosmic source.