7 Sophia

Let me begin this talk with a simple reminder. And by doing so, get us all centred and focussed upon the wisdom of the real world.

As we cast our eyes upon the incredible beauty of this world, as we feel the gentle breeze upon our skin, as we dip our toes into the cold sparkling water of the mountain stream, or as we bite into the soft, luscious peach, we may realise just how fortunate we are.

As we watch the sun go down over the hill, as we watch the stars starting to appear in the night sky, as we hear the evening breeze brushing past the trees, as we watch the moon gently rising over the mountain, we may also realise just how fortunate we are.

All of these are a part of the real world that we experience on an ongoing basis that, in its vastness, counts as the encompasser of all such lesser worlds. Therefore, although all of the above may count as experiences felt and received on our own doorstep, let’s not just dismiss them or take them for granted.

In one way or another, being a part of our experience of the real world, they are all direct pointers to the incredible wisdom of the real world. And what is this wisdom? It is a wisdom that never fluctuates or changes, that is as fresh now as it was when the world first emerged from the grounds of the primeval void.

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The ageless song

This wisdom is the ageless song of the universe, that when apprehended, causes us to know that we are never alone, that we are never without hope and that we are never without guidance. It is a wisdom that is so great, that it necessarily appears to us through multiple sensory channels and diverse forms of expression.

It is a wisdom that is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional and, if we let it, will take us directly to those inner doors that will reveal to us our own true nature. This is a wisdom that, however it presents itself, will never fail to uplift and inspire.

It is a wisdom that when we begin to learn more about it, will then cause us to want more and more. And it is a wisdom that has also inspired the arising of all of the great cultures and civilisations.

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It is the wisdom that has enlightened and illuminated the minds of countless great men and women throughout history, and it is a wisdom that is available to all of us, right here and right now.

To this wisdom, time is an irrelevance. There is no time, that time, the time, because this wisdom is beyond time itself. That which was, is now and always be, it counts as the source, the stream, the fountain from which everything flows.

And when we learn more about this wisdom, there is something within us that knows it, that tells us, yes, we do have a place, we do have a purpose and we do have an incredible part to play.

This wisdom is there for all of us, no matter who we are. It shines upon all alike and all alike may similarly feel free to draw upon it. It does not judge, it does not differentiate – it just is and it will help and guide all of us who call upon it.

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Because this wisdom is timeless, we can, if we choose, begin to discern its influence throughout the history of human civilisation. The study of the way in which this happens is totally illuminating. For it clearly appears wherever and whenever human beings have called out for it.

This wisdom has been represented by a wide variety of symbols, one of the most notable of which is the flower of wisdom. As to which flower, this can vary, depending upon the source. The rose is a popular choice, as also is the lily, both flowers notable for their incredible beauty.

Curiously, the lily is often found growing in muddy swamps and watercourses. In doing so, its incredible beauty stands in complete contrast to the murky environment in which it grows. In this way, the lily becomes a profound symbol of the victory of wisdom over ignorance.

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This flower of wisdom shows its presence in numerous different cultures. Of necessity, the exact type of flower used to characterise wisdom may vary accordingly. Therefore, in one sense, it may appear as the golden flower of Taoist internal alchemy, which forever blooms in those who have properly prepared themselves for it.

In another sense, it may be taken to be synonymous with the lotus of the East that offers one of the most inspirational symbols of our potentiality for enlightenment. 

In yet another sense, it appears as the blue water lily which, according to Egyptian mythology, was the first thing to emerge from the dark grounds of the primeval void. And from its golden heart, there arose the divine child, destined to rule over all of the world, as the illuminated sun king.

So, what do the liberal arts say about this flower of wisdom? They tell us that each one of us is, as it were, a garden unto ourselves and that within this garden, the flower of wisdom might then be grown, tended and brought into bloom. 

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A brilliant illustration of this very point is found in an illuminated encyclopaedia of the twelfth century entitled the Garden of Delights. Compiled by the twelfth century abbess of Hohenberg Herrad von Landsberg (1130 – 1195), there is a picture therein called Philosophy and the Seven Liberal Arts.

This takes the form of a beautiful rose window design of the type often found in cathedrals and churches. The implied flower of wisdom, in this case, has seven petals that are shaped like arches. These are surrounded by a large encompassing circle, while at the centre of the illustration, is a central circle from which radiate out the seven arch-like petals.

Human figures in bright colourful robes have been drawn in each of the seven petals and there are a number of human figures also placed in the central circle, three in all. Then, there are four figures right at the bottom which are portrayed as being somehow excluded from being a part of the rose window design. There is also writing in Latin that has been liberally inscribed in a helpful way to assist the process of interpreting the implied meaning of the illustration.

Hortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_KünstenWhat a striking portrayal of the flower of wisdom, so vividly symbolised in such splendid and colourful detail. This is clearly no chance occurrence, for it all cries out for us to examine it in more detail. Bearing this in mind, let us now devote some time to unlocking some of the features present in this illustration.

The first thing that strikes us is the mathematical precision of the design. Based on geometric principles, these show themselves in two immediate senses. The centres of the seven circles that define the petals of the flower are placed with respect to a heptagon, whose form becomes clear when we visually connect those centres together.

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This heptagon would, no doubt, have been drawn in during the design stage in order to be able to place the seven circles in equal positions around the central circle. Second, the outer circle is twice the diameter of the inner circle, and thrice the diameter of the seven circles placed between them. In other words, the design expresses a perfect harmony of proportions.

These proportions are also significant. They are two to one in terms of the ratios of the diameters of the outer and inner circle, and three to two in terms of the ratios of the diameters of the inner circle to the seven peripheral circles that make the petals of the flower.

Here, it is no coincidence that these two ratios are all that is needed to create the Pythagorean form of seven toned scale that was used in music of the time. Is this significant? For me it is, because it tells me that the illustration is expressing a harmony of ideas, concepts and views.   

The most intriguing features are the figures that have been placed within the eight circles that are the main features of the design. The inner circle contains three such figures, two in the lower part and one in the upper part of the circle.

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The two in the lower part are both male and the illustrator has kindly identified them for us. They are Socrates, shown on the left and his pupil, Plato, on the right. Two of the most eminent philosophers of ancient Greece, their presence as a part of this illustration indicate that, at their hands, the flower of wisdom is considered to have achieved a unique form of expression.

There is Socrates who, with his famous adjuration, ‘Know thyself’, pointed to the importance of self-knowledge and then there is Plato, whose Timaeus attempted to lay bare the inner order of the cosmos. Here is wisdom, expressed through the idea of the small world of the microcosm as symbolised by Socrates and the large world of the macrocosm as symbolised by Plato.

This, then, brings us to the figure in the upper part of the circle, a regal-looking enthroned woman who the illustration usefully identifies as philosophy. She is shown as being larger than the male figures below her, thereby stressing her importance as the very centre of the whole illustration.

However, who is this lady philosophy? Socrates and Plato were real people. Lady philosophy, however, sitting above them, is clearly being shown as their mutual source of inspiration. In this sense, the lady shown is clearly allegorical. Yet, there is more to her than meets the eye.

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The clue lies in the way the word philosophy is shown. Divided into two parts, the first says, ‘philo’, meaning love, and the second says, ‘sophia’, which means wisdom. The message is, therefore, clear. Both Socrates and Plato are being depicted as the lovers of wisdom. The lady shown is the very embodiment of wisdom. Her Greek name is Sophia.

There is, of course, a great history behind the figure of Sophia. The old testament of the bible clearly identifies Sophia as the source of Solomon’s wisdom. There are numerous passages which refer to the great love Solomon had for Sophia.

Wisdom reaches from one end of creation to another mightily, and sweetly does she order all things.

She is more beautiful than the sun and above all the order of the stars; being compared with the light, she is found before it’.

Such are some of the beautiful words we find in The Wisdom of Solomon.  

As an abiding symbol for the wisdom of the real world, this wisdom is continually poured out for the benefit of us all. This is affirmed in the illustration that shows just that. Wisdom is shown pouring out from her in refreshing streams of pure, sparkling water. It is a picture of complete and utter benevolence, of a primeval goddess, compassionately pouring out the waters of wisdom upon the whole world.

The question, of course, is who is there to hear and receive it? Who is there to quieten the turbulences of their own mind and, instead, just listen and hear? Whoever they are, when they do, they themselves will begin to receive that wisdom. For, it is absolutely everywhere and in absolutely everything.

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Naturally, this has echoes which resonate throughout the history of human civilisation and culture. Consider, for example, Sarasvati, the ancient Hindu goddess of knowledge, learning, art and music, often portrayed seated upon the white flower of wisdom.

According to Hindu mythology, the waters of this wisdom are similarly poured out upon the whole world.

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Arising from source, these waters flow like a beautiful silver stream, and, as they build momentum, they eventually turn into a powerful river, capable of sustaining entire civilisations.

This is the fabled, Saraswati river, upon which once sailed those beautiful white swans with which Saraswati is often associated. It is the river upon whose banks once sat those sages who composed hymns and poems in her honour.

milky-way-1063305_1280There are also intimations of other such wisdom goddesses, such as Seshat of ancient Egypt, often linked with either Isis, the gracious mother of the child Horus, or indeed, Hathor, the cow goddess, whose nourishing milk was associated with what we now call the milky way.

The connection with Hathor becomes even clearer in the beautiful Hymn to the Seven Hathors, found on the walls of the Temple of Dendera, specifically where it states:

You are the lady of hymns,

The mistress of the library,

The great Seshat

At the head of the Mansion of Records

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Ancient Egyptian goddess Seshat

The library referred to, no doubt, contains those books of wisdom said to have been written by the consort of Seshat, which was, of course, the ibis headed Thoth, scribe of the gods. In the ancient world, the books said to have been written by Thoth were legendary and included works upon all of the subjects of the liberal arts. 

One of the most curious features of the figure of Sophia, as shown by our illustration, is the crown she wears, which has three heads embedded in it, one looking left, one central and the other looking right. These bring to mind a saying, claimed by the Greek writer, Plutarch, to have been inscribed upon a statue of Isis in Sais, Egypt: 

I am all that was, is and shall be. No mortal has ever lifted my veil.

These heads also show that Sophia was thought of as being triple in her aspect. In reflection of this, the study of philosophy also had three main divisions, which were the rational, the moral and the natural.

Each of these were associated with their own dialectic, which then provided the foundation for all discourse upon these subjects. In terms of rational philosophy, they were the true and the false; in terms of moral philosophy, the good and the bad; and in terms of natural philosophy, the one and the many.

These showed the ways of the two paths that always lie before us. Upon the one side lies the path of the true, the good and the beautiful, while on the other side lies the path of the very opposite of these qualities. And, as has always been the case, the choice of which path to take is always left to us. 

I love these old symbols, for they speak of a wisdom that is ever-green, ever-present and always available to enhance our lives in the here and the now. This is why Sophia is sometimes shown with a book in her right hand and a rod in her lefft.

The book is the faithful record of wisdom that is now available to us through the efforts of those who, in their own time, became the lovers of Sophia. The rod is a symbol of her authority, which comes from the all, the whole, that great unity of which all and everything is a part.

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This rod is also, therefore, the axis mundi, the pole around which the world turns, represented in ancient cultures by the magnificent symbol of the tree of life. Rooted in the bountiful earth, its branches reach upwards towards the heavens. Everything is connected to everything else as a part of that tree – me to you, ourselves to all life and all life to Mother Earth, who provides the great garden in which we all play.

Flowers, trees, poles, books, waters, gardens – a panoply of different symbols, all of which speak of the very same wisdom. Look at the way in which this wisdom is shown pouring out from Sophia in seven streams, four to the right and three to the left.

These streams are the wisdom that nourishes, sustains and supports the seven liberal arts, each represented by their own symbolic figure. There is, consequently, shown a lady for grammar, a lady for dialectic, a lady for geometry and so on. These highlight the fact that wisdom can come to us in different ways. And, when it does come to us, each expression has its own wise maiden who prevails over it.

 

  • Therefore, at one moment it may appear to us through a profound saying whose meaning suddenly captures us – grammar.
  • At another, it may present itself to us an inspiring thought, that then moves us into action – dialectic.
  • At another, we may hear it in a rousing speech, put forth with great courage and conviction – rhetoric.  
  • At one moment, this very same wisdom might appear to us as an arrangement of flowers, disposed so beautifully – arithmetic.  
  • At another, it may appear to us through a beautiful visual pattern – geometry.  
  • At another, we may hear it sound forth through a beautiful melody – music
  • While at another, we may discern it in the rising of the moon over the calm sea – astronomy.

Seven maidens, seven sisters, seven stars – that, like the seven Hathors of ancient Egypt, can all lead us to the incredible wisdom of the real world.

Young Man Greted by the Seven Liberal Arts from the Villa Lemmi fresco Wall Mural
A young man being greeted by the seven maidens of the liberal arts – from the Villa Lemmi fresco, Wall Mural

So, what does or can this mean for us today? It means that there is a wisdom that is ever present within the world. However, to receive that wisdom we have to be open to it. This entails being careful to watch, listen and learn from it.

To be able to do this, however, we first need to quiet our mind. How can we expect to receive if our mind is in a constant state of turbulence? Studying the trivium will help us do this because it will bring order and logic to our mental life.

Thus, being ordered, our mind will begin to settle down, the unpleasant background noise will recede, and our mind will begin to clear, eventually to become like a beautiful, still pool.

Once the mind is clear, we can then begin watching, listening and learning from the real world of which we are a part. Not in the way of book study, but through direct experience. It is at this point that we will begin to receive that wisdom. This is for the simple reason that the noise and turbulences of our mind will no longer be blocking it out.

So, in the meantime, we continue with our studies of the liberal arts, in particular the trivium, which will help to bring that order and clarity to our mental life. How, and in what way, we can do this, I will consider in my next post.

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay

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