The Ball that the Greeks Dropped

The law of three is an example of one of the lost principles of the Western tradition that the Greeks didn't pass on from the Egyptians. 

The law of three is an example of one of the lost principles of the Western tradition that the Greeks didn't pass on from the Egyptians. 

Because it's almost due at the library, I'm reviewing Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife.  I feel like the book is underrated in its importance.  It got a few remarkably ho-hum reviews from Scientific American and The New York Times when it came out in 2000, but in my view it deserves way more credit.  I don't know if Seife has a mystical bent, but to me, it lends itself to breaking down a big wall between Westerners and their souls.

As you might recall, I learnt about the Enneagram at a monastery in Winnipeg 4.5 years ago from a scholar who is little-known in the Enneagram community, David Walsh.  The context that he gave the Enneagram fascinated me, and that weekend has been emblazoned in my memory for the uniqueness of his approach.  He came at the Enneagram (which is a personality-typing system with a mystical side) from the point of view of the Classics- Pythagoras, Plato, the Enneads and the Divine Forms all led up to the modern-day Enneagram we know today.  (That he and his wife are retiring after teaching the Enneagram for 30+ years without passing on their knowledge to a successor is incredible to me and blows my mind.  I called him earlier this year in January to see if he'd be willing to talk about any of the Classical references further, and he declined politely.) 

Russ Hudson, one of the world's most renowned Enneagram teachers today also comes at it from a Classics point of view, but doesn't get into the Greek contribution as much.  His love affair is with Egypt, who gave the Greeks their ontology.  But we can explain a lot by how today's Western society got its flavor by looking at the Greeks, and that's exactly what Seife does in his book about the number zero, and the Greek philosophers' aversion to the idea it represented.  They limited their numeral system to the numbers 1 to 9 because of scariness of the idea of the void.  If it's possible to have a vaccuum, then the earth may not be the centre of the universe, and what does that mean for the "specialness" of mankind?  Early Greek philosophers worked their way around it, enabling Christianity to subsequently fudge its way around it until the Church was finally forced to deal with it after the dark ages, and it was actually Judaism that showed Christianity a way to work it into its theology. 

Islam and Hinduism were comfortable with zero.  Muslims were using it in their number system via algebra, and Hindus had been grappling with nothingness already way before Algebra came on the scene.

My argument is that the Enneagram's purpose was-- and is-- to show Westerners how to deal with their inner void, if you will.  That's why Enneagram teacher and historian Russ Hudson follows up Gurdjieff's quote, "The earth can only be saved when the energy of the West meets the wisdom of the East", with "But the West isn't ready to meet the East because we don't even know our own mystical traditions, so when we meet, how can we have a coherent conversation?"

When Westerners have been given the tools for approaching -- and integrating-- their inner void, they can start to solve some of the most intractable issues the world faces like terrorism, global warming, and growing divide between the rich and poor.  But until we have the emotional intelligence to approach that void, we'll just keep ramming the same truck into the same brick wall hoping for the same results. 

Seife's book outlines how poorly our post-Egyptian Western heritage handled the idea of the infinity and the void.  I propose that heritage is still having its effects on Westerners' mindset -- and therefore policy -- today.