19. The wisdom of age

Tetradic Europe

The history of the tetradic way of thinking in Europe can be divided into several periods, based on a degree of ‘visibility’:

I. The primeval phase of tetradic thinking can be recognized long before ‘Europe’ was established as a cultural entity. Many artifacts of the Bronze (16th – 5th century BC) and Iron Age (450 – 1 BC) display motifs, which are linked with a tetradic division (fig. 114). In particular, in the Iron Age (La Tène) there is a strong Celtic expression in art, which could be regarded as proto-European.


Fig. 114 – Expressions of tetradic ornamentation of jewellery and implements are seen here, dating from a proto-European period, before the actual (visible) delimitation of such an era (starting in 750 AD). These objects indicate that the four-fold imagery, possibly incorporated in some sort of sun worship, must have been part of the ancient ‘Celtic’ frame of mind, which preceded the arbitrary start of the socio-political presence of ‘Europe’ as a historic entity. Top left: A silver plate from the grave of the ‘princess’, Hassleben, Erfurt (Germany), third to fourth century AD. The ‘Fürstinnengrabes von Hassleben’ was discovered in 1913. See for the original research results also: Walter SCHULZ (1931). Das Fürstengrab von Hassleben. Berlin/Leipzig. Top right: a swastika-motive from a grave. Below: two richly ornamented brooches from a Roman grave in Denmark, with a swastika motif. Iron Age. National Museum, Copenhagen.

II. The gradual withdrawal of the Romans as a political force from (western and central) Europe and the migration of tribes within the territory, changed the cultural scene from the fifth century AD onwards and gave way to new developments. The strong ‘revival’ of the Celtic element – from 600 – 700 AD – prepared the formal visibility of ‘Europe’. The missionary work of the Irish Christians during this period – generated in their own Celtic cultural background – brought large areas of west and central Europe in contact with a forgotten heritage (fig. 115/116).


Fig. 115 – Early Celtic number symbolism. a. Bronze decoration from Luristan; b. Old Kilcullen Cross; c. Kells, Market cross; d. Gilt bronze disk, Togherstown (NMD); e, Book of Kells; f. Broze plaquette in Trondheim Museum. In: HENRY (1967).


Fig. 116 – Celtic four-fold symbolism occurs, enigmatic but widespread, in a number of spiritual books written by Irish and English scholars. This illustration is a page from the Book of Lindisfarne, created by the clergyman Eadfrith and Ethelwald between 688 and 698 AD. The book consists of 258 folio’s (24 x 34 cm), British Library Cotton MS Nero D. IV.

III. The major discussion – and subsequently in historical hindsight its visibility – on the different types of division-thinking took place in the eleventh and twelfth century in a small, but influential intellectual environment. A strife flared up between Christian scolars over the dominant type of division thinking: either the four-fold (or the old way) or the three-fold (the new way).

The Holy Trinity was the new symbol, which was better suited for the worldly ambitions of power of the Roman Catholic Church. Or, like ALLERS (1944; p. 372) expressed it rather cryptically: ‘Although the Monad retained much of its importance also during the Middle Ages, the Three there plays, for obvious reasons, a predominant role.’

An example of the new spirit of division can be seen in fig. 117, where the Unity of God (Deus) is divided in a soul (Spiritus) and a body (Caro), together making a trinity. Each of these parts is connected individually with four categories: Bonum – Qualitas – Quantitas – Motus.


Fig. 117 – The trinity Deus, Spiritus en Caro is seen here as an expression of division thinking at the end of the twelfth century in Europe. God (Deus) represents a unity, which divides in two: Spiritus (Soul) and Caro (Body) to make up a trinity. The three units are connected with four descriptive characteristics: the ultimate Good (bonum), quality (qualitas), quantity (quantitas) and motion (motus).

The intellectual blend of Celtic (with four-fold elements) and Christian (with two-fold principles) division-thinking resulted, during the smooth transition into the Carolingian period, in the first visibility of Europe-‘as a unity’. This moment is arbitrary chosen – from an early twenty-first century view point – around the year 750 AD, when Charlemagne started his, partly successful but temporary, effort to unite Europe.

Tetradic thinking was further elaborated at the Carolingian court schools, without formulating a theory (maybe except for John Scotus Eriugena). Its character, like it has always been, is one of modesty. It searches, in an ‘Epicurean’ way, to ‘isonomia‘ or balance (between the four types of visibility in the different quadrants). Expression is not the explicit aim of a tetradic approach, because the dynamic element will be partly lost at the very moment that a material visibility is established.

IV. The European cultural history reached a climax in perceptible existence in the Renaissance and the ‘Golden Age’ (1450 – 1700). Expansion and discovery resulted in growing trade and industry, art and creativity. However, the emphasis on the material aspects of life had a detrimental effect on the width of division thinking. The lower forms of division thinking, and the spirit of opposites, turned out to be extremely useful in conquering the world and exploiting its wealth (like the Romans had shown before). No questions were asked, in the process of strife and submission, to the Indians, Aztecs, Incas or the people along the African coast, who saw their cultures damaged or destroyed.

A publication by the Scottish Reverend Thomas Boston (1676 – 1732) called ‘Human Nature in its Fourfold State or Primitive Integrity, Entire Depravity, Begin Recovery, and Consummate Happiness or Misery‘ is a representative book for this period. This publication, which is now virtually unreadable, gives the impression of a tetradic division, but is basically a collection of polarities, using the quaternary as a numerological summary. His four phases (1. Innocence; 2. Nature; 3. Grace and 4. Eternal happiness or misery) expressed the characteristics of opposites, the either… or and nothing in between. The material Golden Age of Europe and its temporary world-domination was, above all, a period of the Narrow View.

V. The wisdom of age and a wider view became dominant in Europe after 1800 AD, when Europe entered the last quadrant of its visible existence. Often, the spirit of the time is described as ‘Romantic’, but fundamentally it was the challenge of the four-fold way of thinking entering the intellectual climate.

This conceptual revolution is observable in different areas of human activity. The ‘Essai sur la Philosophie des Sciences’ (1834) of André-Marie Ampère (1775 – 1836) articulated a new feeling of confidence in the division of nature, which was reached after a ‘long travail‘ from 1804 to 1820. In his own development Ampère distinguished four stages: ‘quatre epoques correspondent aux quatre sortes de conceptions‘. This division corresponds, by-and-large, with the characteristics of the (quadralectic) quadrants and their type of visibility:

Ampère                                          Quadrant                                 Type of Visibility


Sensations                                        First                                      invisible invisibility

Decouvre l’existence                       Second                                 invisible visibility

Donner un nom                               Third                                    visible visibility

Réuni                                                  Fourth                                 visible invisibility

It is clear, that Ampère’s activities were centred in the last two areas. Multitude of knowledge did not scare him. He was grown up with Diderot’s ‘Encyclopaedie‘ and – just like the celebrated encyclopaedists – determined to name it all. All knowledge, was his strong opinion, can be united into a universal system. He gave a synopsis towards the end of his essay with an ‘Explication des tableaux synoptiques des sciences et des arts‘. And if that is not enough, he concluded with a ‘Carmen Mnemonicum’, a Latin poem to remember the classification.

VI. At present, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there seems to be a renewal of the tetradic thinking and a fresh understanding of the limitations of lower division thinking. The atrocities of two World Wars have proven, without doubt, that the thinking-in-opposites leads to moral bankruptcy (fig. 118). Love and hate are too meager ingredients for human interaction. The range should be wider and more flexible.


Fig. 118 – The four horses of the apocalypse (1925) by Friedrich Viegener (Soest 1888) in: BLOCK  (1966).

Our present activity has to be one of mapping the past and the future with new and better measures, leaving enough space for options and other interpretations. In the end (which is also a beginning) their is no ultimate truth, only a newly gained wisdom.

The description of the complete history of tetradic thought in Europe would be an enormous task, which might be too gigantic to undertake. The present overview will only be an outline of possible indications. The above mentioned periods will be followed and from each period some examples of tetradic imagery or thought are presented. Most important of all is the notion that such a history could be written and will provide, in the end, a better insight.

BLOCK, Werner (1966) – Der Arzt und der Tod in Bildern aus sechs Jahrhunderten. Ferdinand Enke Verlag, Stuttgart.

HENRY, Francoise (1967). Irish Art. During the Viking Invasions (800 – 1020 AD). Methuen & Co., Ltd., London.

SCHULZ, Walter (1931). Das Fürstengrab von Hassleben. – R. Zahn, Die Silberteller von Haßleben und Augst (Berlin 1933). Hist. Zeitschr. 153, 1935, 169-170. Berlin/Leipzig.

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