A division of (a ‘linear’) infinity into a grouping of three (triad) requires two points of partitioning. The three-division is in many ways a more dynamic and versatile entity than the two-division (dyad). The latter is direct and elementary. The three-division gives, in contrast, more space to maneuver. The three terms – regardless of their interpretation – can be juggled and a middle term can absorb the sharp edges of opposition. This capacity has challenged the intellectual minds of mankind and given them a vast and near boundless space to create a new reality.
Neoplatonism and Christianity are most noticeable for the development of a system based on the triple division. Both spiritual currents experienced their infancy in the first centuries AD. This crucial time in European and Middle Eastern history was characterized by the hectic activity of different types of division thinking, translated in power struggles and religious currents.
The reason to embrace the trias (as a division system) at that particular time, can be interpreted as a reaction to the growing quadripartite tendencies in the ‘years of power’ of the Roman Empire. The celebrated poet Vergilius (70 – 19 BC) created in his ‘Georgica’ a tetradic epos, in which Empedocles’ cycle of love and strife sounded as a distinct echo. The arcadic opening was followed by a phase of dynamic growth and development, characterized by strife. Than the advancement crystallized again in a static reality, where the identity was born in love. The highest/dynamic understanding was finally found in the last section, but not without strife.
The Roman poet Ovidius (43 BC – c.17 AD) added more material to the acceptance of a four-fold cognitive framework. His creation story of the earth was a tetradic model in a nutshell. He distinguished four ages: the Golden Age (of unbound happiness), the Age of Silver (with the institution of the four seasons and agricultural labour), the Age of Bronze (with a fierce character) and finally, the Age of Iron, where modesty, truth and loyalty fled. Tetradic affinities were found in the architecture of the palaces, bathes and other structures of the emperors like Trajan (AD 98 – 117), Hadrian (117 – 138), Caracalla (212 – 216) and Diocletian (284 – 305). The latter emperor even concentrated (twice) his political organization on the four-division, known as the tetrarchy of Diocletian.
The mythological Roma quadrata (VON GERKAN, 1959; MÜLLER, 1961) was recreated in the Italian Renaissance. The first centuries AD were inspired by the ideas of Neoplatonism, which influenced the persons in power. Plotinus (AD 204 – 270) was a Greek philosopher from Egypt, who gained many followers after his settlement in Rome in 244. He got permission from Emperor Galienus to design a city based on the rules set by Plato, but this project never materialized. Plotinus’ book ‘The Enneads’, compiled by Porphyrios, is still a cryptic compilation of knowledge in which the triadic organization was a guideline. Stephen Mackenna’s translation of the ‘Enneads’ (in English, Larsen Publications, 1992) reached for the essence of Plotinus’ writing. However, a quadralectic mind will be necessary to understand it.
Another reason to embrace the trias can be determined as an action of dynamism derived from the One (monas). The emerging Christian faith followed the spirit of division thinking by taking a direct step from the monas to the trias. God – in the unity of a one-division – was fragmented in a Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The pitfalls of the dualistic system were surpassed and the soul, in its journey through the stages of being, came to rest in a heavenly trias. The motion was a world-fulfilling act of man in reaching the Unity. This transition from a monadic into a triadic system was, among others, recorded by the Greek philosopher Porphyrios of Tyre (ca. AD 232 – 304) in his explanation of the Chaldaeic oracles.
The fourth-century grammarian, rhetorician, philosopher, and theologian Marius Victorinus (ca. AD 280 – 365) used two sequences of the Trinity. Firstly, he employed the Father – Holy Ghost – Son succession. And secondly, the traditional (Neoplatonic) order was mentioned as Father – Son – Holy Ghost. The latter was favored by Plotinus in the form of One, Nus and Soul. Marius Victorinus expressed his devotion to the three-division in the following verses (v. 210 – 213) of his Hymnus 1:
I praise thy, Unity
I praise thy, Trinity
One will be as three
And three will be as one.
This hymn expresses the three-fold way of thinking in miniature. It displays, in a direct way, the ‘jump’ from the unity (of the one-division) to the multitude (in a three-division). The last sentence closes the division circle again.
The synthesis between the (Neo) Platonian trias and the Christian trinity was brought about some century later by Synesios of Cyrene, who was bishop of Ptolemais around AD 410. This colorful character studied in Alexandria, served the army, visited Constantinople (and Athens) on a diplomatic mission and wrote many books and letters. He died about AD 414. The subjects of his interest were wide and varied, ranging from the breeding of dogs (Cynogetics, not extant) to a treatise on dreams (De insomniis). His election of bishop and his subsequent duties were uncongenial to him. One hundred and fifty-five epistles and ten hymns from his hand are known. Petavius in Paris published the only complete edition of Synesius’ writing in 1612.
The concept of the trias has been extremely powerful throughout the ages, mainly because of its versatility. The three options of positioning surpass the dual cause with its two probabilities. It withdraws itself from elementary language of survival based on reflexes. It gives the act of thinking a human flexibility, which lifts it above the basic instincts of the animal world. It provides, in short, mankind with some sort of dignity.
The adaptable content of the trinity was attributed to God when the times of struggle for spiritual supremacy flared up in the early Christian era. The advantage was that the principle of power (related to oppositional thinking) was still close at hand and the lines of decision taking remained short. The Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost became the representative of God in this world (fig. 7).
Fig. 7 – The trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Pater – Filius – Spiritus Sanctus) as given in a woodcut from 1524. This tripartition was used in the Christian faith to capture the three-fold way of thinking in a comprehensive way. This picture also shows the position of God (Deo) in the middle, i.e. inside the trinity. Above the triangle is his triple face, as a ruler of the division. The counting of God as an extra entity can easily extend the meaning of the trinity into a quaternary, but the Catholic Faith is explicitly against this move. The symbol of the four evangelists in the four corners (Saint John as an eagle, Matthew as a man, Marc as a lion and Luke as a bull) nevertheless strengthen the idea of a higher division.
The tripartite psychological setting can be associated – in a quadralectic interpretation – with a Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ (der Wille zur Macht). The two-division is too obvious and simple a tool to decide over the right or wrong (for oneself and for other people). The three-division offers, on the other hand, a suitable frame to manipulate the mind. Different abstract positions can be taken. A position in one (of the three) segments is still near the ‘save’ world of duality. A retreat, if necessary, is a simple move.