Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part VI


The Four Elements…The Four Seasons…The Four Ages of the World…The Four Ages of Man…The Four Humours…Classical Virtues…Gospels…Senses of Scripture…

If Three is the number of metaphysical plenitude, Four is the number of totality in the physical world of space and time.

Individual material things are combined of and require four elements, as we have seen. Each of the elements is, moreover, constituted of two of the four contraries, hot and cold, wet and dry.

But Four is also the number of geometrical space: a point has no dimension; two points define a line with the dimension of length; three points a plane, with length and width. A fourth point makes a thing a “solid”. And since, in the world of space and time, there are neither points, nor lines, nor planes, but only solids, the others being merely concepts in the mind, the number Four is once again the minimum and necessary number of physical reality.

Plato images the quaternity of physical space in his cosmogonic myth in the Timaeus, where he relates that the Creator erected the World-Soul in the centre of the universe in the shape of the Greek letter Chi (our X), whose four arms extend to the extremities of the cosmos. Not to be deprived of this totality symbol, the Christian Fathers read Plato’s text and declared the secret meaning of his X-shaped World-Soul to be the Christian Logos, whose symbol is the Cross which, like the World-Soul, extends its branches out into space in the four cardinal directions, and thereby pervades and holds together everything in the cosmos in rational harmony and order. (According, moreover, to another medieval tradition recorded in Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale, the Cross was made of four kinds of wood – cedar, cypress, palm, and olive – as the world was made of four elements.)


Both the upper, middle, and the lower worlds must also reflect this quaternary division of space. Because there are four cardinal directions, there are also four winds: Eurus from the east, Auster from the south, Zephyr from the west, and Boreas from the north. In the biblical Paradise, four rivers divide Eden into eastern, southern, western, and northern quadrants, and these have their namesakes in the Heavenly Paradise, as well. And of course there are four rivers in hell: our old friends Styx, Cocytus, Acheron, and Phlegethon.



Like space, time has four divisions – the seasons of the year and the divisions of the day – and each season and division has a cardinal direction associated with it. Spring, the beginning of the year and the time of universal rebirth, is the season of the east, where the Sun is reborn; it is also the morning of the year. Summer is the season of the south, and the year’s afternoon. Autumn belongs to the west, where the sun sets, in the evening, that is. And Winter is the season of night and the north. Accordingly, the entrance to the underworld is, in most ancient mythologies, in the west, and the north is the traditional habitation of the Devil.

In classical mythology the seasons correspond in turn to the four historical ages of the world. The Age of Gold was, as Ovid and Virgil relate, an era of unending bounty and ver perpetua (eternal spring). It was only with the beginning of the Silver Age that time and number came into being, when Zeus (in Ovid’s formulation) “divided up the year” into seasons.

In the Silver Age, men are for the first time afflicted by the seasonal extremes, and now, like Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, must erect dwellings and don clothes to protect themselves against the weather. They must till the soil in the scorching summer sun and get their daily bread – which no longer drops into their waiting mouths from the all-providing breast of Mother Earth – by the sweat of their brow.

The Silver Age is the age of “toil, unrelenting toil”, as Virgil describes it. As the second age of the world, the age of duality, it symbolizes the aeon when the present world of space and time materializes out of the pleromatic One – that Paradise of spiritual Unity before the material world split off from the Divine and produced the tragedy of multiplicity –, and when, psychologically speaking, the infant child achieves his painful second birth, that of a separate consciousness from the mother.

If we pass over the Age of Bronze to the fourth Age, the Iron Age, we can easily recognize what, for Ovid and Virgil at least, is the present. It is an age of murder and mayhem, of decadence, rapacity, and inhumanity, civilization’s wintry night.


The Microcosm

On the principle that man is in every respect the microcosm of the greater world, his life, like that of the year, is divided into four ages, and the human body, like the body of the world, is also composed of four elements, the four “temperaments” or “humours”.

Sophocles’ Sphinx knew the ancient topos of the three phases of human life, but the four ages of man (childhood, youth, maturity, and senescence) was a more widely circulated topos. It is recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the famous passage in which Pythagoras dilates upon the Metamorphoses’ over-arching theme of ceaseless and universal transformation. Here we first encounter the conceit of the four “seasons” of man’s life. (I’m reading Ovid’s lines in George Sandys’ early seventeenth century translation:)

Doth not the image of our age appeare
In the successive quarters of the Yeare?
The Spring-tide, tender; sucking Infancie
Resembling: then the juycefull blade sprouts high;
Though tender, weake; yet hope to Plough-man yields.
All things then flourish; flowers the gaudie fields
With colours paint: no vertue yet in leaves.
Then following Summer greater strength receives:
A lusty Youth; no age more strength acquires,
More fruitfull, or more burning in desires.
Maturer Autumn, heat of Youth alaid,
The sober meane twixt youth and age, more staid
And temperate temples sprinkled with gray haires.
Then comes old Winter, void of all delight,
With trembling steps: his head or bald or white.
So change our bodies without rest or stay:
What wee were yester-day, nor what to day,
Shall be to morrow.

Inevitably, the four ages of man become aligned, not only with the seasons, but the elements and humours in turn. As we read in such influential Renaissance emblem books as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, Childhood corresponds to Spring, the Air, and the sanguine temperament; Youth to Summer, Fire, and Choler; Manhood to Autumn, Earth, and Melancholy; Old Age to Winter, Water, and Phlegm.

Demonstrating the correspondence of the humours to the elements and contraries was already a reflex of the Pre-Socratics. As explained by Alcmaeon of Croton, one of the founders of Greek medical theory in the early fifth century B.C.,

the essence of health lies in the equality of the powers—moist dry, cold, hot, and the rest—whereas the cause of sickness is the supremacy of one among these. For the rule of any one of them is a cause of destruction…while health is the proportionate mixture of the qualities.

In the late fifth century, the arch-physician Hippocrates goes on to subsume the four seasons into the analogy:

All of them are present in the body, but as the seasons revolve they become now greater now less, in turn, according to the nature of each. The year has a share of all things—the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet—for no one of the things [i.e., the contraries] which exist in the world-order would last for any length of time were it not for all the rest. On the contrary, if a single thing were to fail, all would disappear….So also with the body; if any of the things which have come into being together were to fail in it, a man could not live.

Like the elements in the pre-cosmogonic chaos, the bodily contraries are at war with one another: an excess of one, at the expense of its opposite, leads to disease; health, like the world-order, depends upon the establishment and preservation of a balance – a “proportion” or “harmony” – between them.


The Four Humours

The bodily humours are composed, of course, of the same contraries as the elements. Hot and wet combine to form Blood (as they do to make Air). Hot and dry make Choler (Fire); cold and wet, Phlegm (Water); cold and dry, Melancholy (Earth). The humours are thus the physiological “elements” of which the body is composed. When Shakespeare describes the “elements” as being perfectly mixed in Brutus (Julius Caesar V. v., 73), he means the humours.

Like the four elements, accordingly, the four humours must be in balance to preserve the health of the microcosm, both body and soul. As modern materialists, we might be inclined to compare the humour-theory to the latest fashion in modern psychology, according to which erratic psychological “moods” are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. But the humours are hardly merely physical substances, any more than are the elements. They may be poetically depicted as “liquids” – physical substances – but in essence they are really living and divine quasi-spiritual “soul-substances” like the Fire, Water, or Air of the Pre-Socratics. Given that the soul is always the regulating component of the human complex, both vice and physical sickness are rooted in the same psychological disorder of which a disproportion of the humours is merely the objective correlative. (Thus passio, which signifies a general moral or spiritual disharmony caused by too much sensuality and not enough reason, also means “suffering” or “disease” in the physical sense.)

In terms of the “bodily” humours, too much choler, at the expense of the other three, makes a man “choleric”, that is, wrathful, irritable, or quarrelsome (just as too much – or too little – of the “hot” or “dry” of which Choler is constituted impairs that humour’s function, and conduces to disease). To maintain the proper harmony amongst the four humours is to maintain one’s “temper”; to fail to do so, through an excess or defect of one or the other, is to “lose one’s temper” or become “ill-tempered”. (In modern popular parlance, a man who loses his temper is easily aroused to anger; originally, however, the expression merely indicated the undue predominance of any of the four humours.)



In the imperfect world of fallen man, the proportion in which the humours are blended differs from person to person. This gives rise to his temperamentum or complexio. A man in whom Choler predominates possesses a choleric temperament, which is often manifested in his facial features and colouring (in the modern sense of the word “complexion”). Thus, in the Miller’s Tale, the “rode” (colouring) of the amorous but vengeful Absolon is described as “reed, his eyen greye as goos” (3316). His substance consumed by the fire of his anger, the choleric man is tall and thin. Chaucer’s Reeve, who aches to “requite” the Miller for his tale, who is “adrad as of the deeth” (G.P., 605) by all who have dealings with him, and who carries a “rusty blade” (618) ever at his side, is thus “a sclendre colerik man” (587) whose legs “ful longe were …and ful lene” (591).

The man in whom Blood predominates possesses a sanguine temperament, the most benign of the four. As the choleric is always “on fire”, the sanguine man is “airy”: optimistic, cheerful, and fun-loving. Ripa shows Sanguis as a youth wearing a garland, playing amorous ditties on a lute, and gorging on grapes, with a lecherous goat beside him. Chaucer declares of the Franklin, “Of his complexioun he was sangwyn”; and indeed, he is practically a walking case-history of this temperament: “To lyven in delit was evere his wone,/For he was Epicurus owene sone”. (33) A gourmand and general hedonist, the sanguine man eats and sleeps robustly, parades in opulent attire, is ruddy of visage, and of Falstaffian figure.

The melancholic, whose cosmic element is Earth, is dragged down by the gravity of existence. In The Gouernour, Elyot describes him as lean, fearful, sullen, a fitful sleeper, and given to “anger long and fretting”. Hamlet correctly diagnoses his own condition as melancholia. But the symptoms of melancholy may fit anyone from a malcontent to a mystic. In Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholie, the sufferer is a social outcast. In Moliere, he is a bitter and disillusioned misanthrope. In Ripa, Melancholia is a woodland recluse with only “light-loathing” slugs and other beasts for company. But in Durer’s portrait of Melancolia, his solitude and studiousness are marks of the contemplative. In Chaucer and medieval romance, the melancholic might be anyone from a neurotic courtly lover to a world-denying “scolere”.

The phlegmatic is the most repellent of the four types. Elyot describes him as fat, of pale complexion, dull, slow to learn, timorous, and always sleepy. Ripa shows him with a tortoise next to him, nodding off in the chimney. In terms of the deadly sins, the phlegmatic is guilty of idleness. But it is worse than that. He is utterly disengaged from life, and, according, from moral action. The best contemporary impersonation of the phlegmatic type is that of the adipose eleven-year-old, sprawled out on the couch in front of his “videos”, inveterately bored and whining.

Besides this innate and more or less fixed psychological typology, the pre-modern man must contend as well with humours that tend to flare up at set times of the day. Since they correspond to the four seasons, one supposes, the four temperaments must correspond to the seasons of the day, as well. Blood is dominant from midnight till 6 a.m.; Choler, in the morning, from 6 till noon; Melancholy in the afternoon, from noon till 6 p.m.; Phlegm till midnight.


I’ll mention only three other important four’s.

One of the most recurrent topoi of classical literature and thought is the four cardinal virtues: Prudence (or Wisdom); Temperance (or Continence); Fortitude (or Courage); and Justice. With the coming of Christianity, the classical virtues were obliged to fall in line with some appropriate Christian quartet, and in the fourth century, using a typically fanciful etymology, St. Ambrose found a way to identify each with one of the four rivers of Paradise.

Finally, if the book is a world, then The Book must be quadripartite. When the canon was closed, the Church recognized precisely four authentic Gospels, and of course, in Christian art, one of the most common representations of the Godhead has the Son enthroned in a mandorla surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists: the lion of Mark, the ox of Luke, the man-angel of Matthew, and the eagle of John. Notably, too, the medieval biblical exegetes identified precisely four “senses” or levels of meaning of Scripture: the outer historical letter (in the familiar Pauline terms, Scripture’s body), and three inner allegorical or spiritual senses: the typological or allegorical sense proper, the tropological, or moral sense, and the anagogical, or mystical.

This brings me to the tendency – as noted by Jung – of many quaternities to break down into groups of three and one; but I’ll have to postpone that for another time.