Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors. I should like to sketch one chapter of that history.
Six centuries before the Christian era Xenophanes of Colophon, the rhapsodist, weary of the Homeric verses he recited from city to city, attacked the poets who attributed anthropomorphic traits do the gods; the substitute he proposed to the Greeks was a single God: an eternal sphere. In Plato’s Timaeus we read that the sphere is the most perfect and most uniform shape, because all points in its surface are equidistant from the center. Olof Gigon (Ursprung der griechischen Philosophie, 183) says that Xenophanes shared that belief; the God was spheroid, because that form was the best, or the least bad, to serve as a representation of the divinity. Forty years later, Parmenides of Elea repeated the image (“Being is like the mass of a well-rounded sphere, whose force is constant from the center in any direction”). Calogero and Mondolfo believe that he envisioned an infinite, or infinitely growing sphere, and that those words have a dynamic meaning (Albertelli, Gli Eleati, 148). Parmenides taught in Italy; a few years after he died, the Sicilian Empedocles of Agrigentum plotted a laborious cosmogony, in one section of which the particles of earth, air, fire, and water compose an endless sphere, “the round Sphairos, which rejoices in its circular solitude.”
Universal history followed its course. The too-human gods attacked by Xenophanes were reduced to poetic fictions or to demons, but it was said that one god, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variously estimated number of books (42, according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000, according to Iamblichus; 36,525, according to the priests of Thoth, who is also Hermes), on whose pages all things were written. Fragments of that illusory library, compiled or forged since the third century, form the so-called Hermetica. In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille - Alanus de Insulis - discovered this formula, which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The Pre-Socratic spoke of an endless sphere; Albertelli (like Aristotle before him) thinks that such a statement is a contradictio in adjecto, because the subject and predicate negate each other. Possibly so, but the formula of the Hermetic books almost enables us to envisage that sphere. In the thirteenth century the image reappeared in the symbolic Roman de la Rose, which attributed it to Plato, and in the Speculum Triplex encyclopedia. In the sixteenth century the last chapter of the last book of Pantagruel referred to “that intellectual sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere, which we call God.” For the medieval mind, the meaning was clear: God is in each one of his creatures, but it not limited by anyone of them. “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee,” said Solomon (I Kings 8:27). The geometrical metaphor of the sphere must have seemed like a gloss of those words.
Dante’s poem has preserved Ptolemaic astronomy, which ruled men’s imaginations for fourteen hundred years. The earth is the center of the universe. It is an immovable sphere, around which nine concentric spheres revolve. The first seven are the planetary heavens (the heavens of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn); the eighth, the Heaven of Fixed Stars; the ninth, the Crystalline Heaven (called the Primum Mobile), surrounded by the Empyrean, which is made of light. That whole laborious array of hollow, transparent, and revolving spheres (one system required fifty-five) had come to a mental necessity. De hypothesibus motuum coelestium commentariolus was the timid title that Copernicus, the disputer of Aristotle, gave to the manuscript that transformed our vision of the cosmos. For one man, Giordano Bruno, the breaking of the sidereal vaults was a liberation. In La cena de le ceneri he proclaimed that the world was the infinite effect of an infinite cause and the divinity was near, “because it is in us even more than we ourselves are in us.” He searched for the words that would explain Copernican space to mankind, and on one famous page he wrote: “We can state with certainty that the universe is all center, or that the center of the universe is everywhere and the circumference nowhere” ( De la causa, principio e uno, V).
That was written exultantly in 1584, still in the light of the Renaissance; seventy years later not one spark of that fervor remained and men felt lost in time and space. In time, because if the future and the past are infinite, there will not really be a when; in space, because if every being is equidistant from the infinite and the infinitesimal, there will not be a where. No one exists on a certain day, in a certain place; no one knows the size of his face. In the Renaissance humanity thought it had reached adulthood, and it said as much through the mouths of Bruno, Campanella, and Bacon. In the seventeenth century humanity was intimidated by a feeling of old age; to vindicate itself it exhumed the belief of a slow and fatal degeneration of all creatures because of Adam’s sin. (In Genesis 5:27 we read that “all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years”; in 6:4, that “There were giants in the earth in those days.”) The elegy Anatomy of the World, by John Donne, deplored the very brief lives and the slight stature of contemporary men, who could be likened to fairies and dwarfs. According to Johnson’s biography, Milton feared that an epic genre had become impossible on earth. Glanvill thought that Adam, God’s medal, enjoyed a telescopic and microscopic vision. Robert South wrote, in famous words, that an Aristotle was merely the wreckage of Adam, and Athens, the rudiments of Paradise. In that jaded century the absolute space that inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space that had been a liberation for Bruno, was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He hated the universe, and yearned to adore God. But God was less real to him than the hated universe. He was sorry that the firmament could not speak; he compared our lives to those of shipwrecked men on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world; he felt confused, afraid, and alone; and he expressed his feelings like this: “It [nature] is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” That is the text of the Brunschvicg edition, but the critical edition of Tourneur (Paris, 1941), which reproduces the cancellations and the hesitations of the manuscript, reveals that Pascal started to write effroyable: “A frightful sphere, the center of which is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere.”
Perhaps universal history is the history of the diverse intonation of a few metaphors.
Everything And Nothing
There was no one in him; behind his face (which even in the poor paintings of the period is unlike any other) and his words, which were copious, imaginative, and emotional, there was nothing but a little chill, a dream not dreamed by anyone. At first he thought everyone was like him, but the puzzled look on a friend’s face when he remarked on that emptiness told him he was mistaken and convinced him forever that an individual must not differ from his species. Occasionally he thought he would find in books the cure for his ill, and so he learned the small Latin and less Greek of which a contemporary was to speak. Later he thought that in the exercise of an elemental human rite he might well find what he sought, and he let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At twenty-odd he went to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself in the habit of pretending that he was someone, so it would not be discovered that he was no one. In London he hit upon the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who plays on stage at being someone else. His playacting taught him a singular happiness, perhaps the first he had known; but when the last line was applauded and the last corpse removed from the stage, the hated sense of unreality came over him again. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamburlaine and again became a nobody. Trapped, he fell to imagining other heroes and other tragic tales. Thus, while in London’s bawdyhouses and taverns his body fulfilled its destiny as body, the soul that dwelled in it was Caesar, failing to heed the augurer’s admonition, and Juliet, detesting the lark, and Macbeth, conversing on the heath with the witches, who are also the fates. Nobody was ever as many men as that man, who like the Egyptian Proteus managed to exhaust all the possible shapes of being. At times he slipped into some corner of his work a confession, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his single person he plays many parts, and Iago says with strange words, “I am not what I am.” His passages on the fundamental identity of existing, dreaming, and acting are famous.
Twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was overcome by the surfeit and the horror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many unhappy lovers who converge, diverge, and melodiously agonize. That same day he disposed of his theater. Before a week was out he had returned to the village of his birth, where he recovered the trees and the river of his childhood; and he did not bind them to those others his muse had celebrated, those made illustrious by mythological allusions and Latin phrases. He had to be someone; he became a retired impresario who has made his fortune and who interests himself in loans, lawsuits, and petty usury. In this character he dictated the arid final will and testament that we know, deliberately excluding from it every trace of emotion and of literature. Friends from London used to visit his retreat, and for them he would take on again the role of poet.
The story goes that, before or after he died, he found himself before God and he said: “I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.” The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.”
From Someone to NobodyIn the beginning, God is the Gods (Elohim), a plural that some believe implies majesty and others plenitude, and which some have thought is an echo of earlier polytheisms or a prefiguring of the doctrine, declared in Nicaea, that God is One and is Three. Elohim takes a singular verb; the first verse of the Law says, literally: "In the beginning the Gods [He] created the heaven and the earth." Despite the vagueness this plural suggests, Elohim is concrete; God is called "Jehovah" and we read that He walked in the garden in, as the English versions say, "the cool of the day." Human qualities define Him; in one part of the Scriptures we read: "And it repented Jehovah that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart"; and in another, " For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God"; and in another, "In the fire of My wrath have I spoken." The subject of such locutions is indisputably Someone, a corporal Someone whom the centuries will magnify and blur. His titles vary: "Strength of Jacob," "Rock of Israel," "I Am That I Am," "God of the Armies," "King of Kings." This last-which no doubt conversely inspired Gregory the Great's "Servant of the Servants of God"-is, in the original text, a superlative of "king": as Fray Luis de Le6n writes, "It is a property of the Hebrew language to use the same word twice when one wants to emphasize something, either favorably or unfavorably. Thus, to say 'Song of Songs' is the same as our 'A Song among Songs' or 'he is a man among men,' that is, famous and eminent among all and more excellent than many others." In the first centuries of our era, theologians began to use the prefix omni, which previously had been reserved for adjectives pertaining to nature or Jupiter; they coined words like omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, which make of God a respectful chaos of unimaginable superlatives. That nomenclature, like the others, seems to limit the divinity: at the end of the fifth century, the unknown author of the Corpus Dionysiacum declares that no affirmative predicate is fitting for God. Nothing should be affirmed of Him, everything can be denied. Schopenhauer notes dryly: "That theology is the only true one, but it has no content." Written in Greek, the tracts and letters that make up the Corpus Dionysiacum find a reader in the ninth century who puts them into Latin: John Erigena or Scotus, that is, John the Irishman, whose name in history is Scotus Erigena, or Irish Irish. He formulates a doctrine of a pantheistic nature: particular things are theophanies (revelations or appearances of the divine) and behind them is God, who is the only reality, "but who does not know what He is, because He is not a what, and is incomprehensible to Himself and to all intelligence." He is not sapient, He is more than sapient; He is not good, He is more than good; He inscrutably exceeds and repels all attributes. John the Irishman, to define Him, used the word nihilum, which is nothingness; God
is the primordial nothingness of the creatio ex nihilo, the abyss where first the archetypes and then concrete beings were engendered. He is Nothing and Nobody; those who imagined Him in this way did so in the belief that this was more than being a What or a Who. Similarly, Shankara teaches that all mankind, in a deep sleep, is the universe, is God.
The process I have illustrated is not, of course, aleatory. A magnification to nothingness occurs or tends to occur in all cults; we may observe it unmistakably in the case of Shakespeare. His contemporary, Ben Jonson, loves him "on this side of Idolatry"; Dryden declares that he is the Homer of the dramatic poets of England, but admits that he is often insipid and pompous; the discursive eighteenth century attempts to appraise his virtues and rebuke his faults; in 1774, Maurice Morgann states that King Lear and Falstaff are nothing but modifications of the mind of their inventor; at the beginning of the nineteenth century that opinion is recreated by Coleridge, for whom Shakespeare is no longer a man but a literary variation of the infinite God of Spinoza. Shakespeare as an individual person, he wrote, was a natura naturata, an effect, but "the universal which is potentially in each particular opened out to him . . . not as an abstraction of observation from a variety of men, but as the substance capable of endless modifications, of which his own personal existence was but one." Hazlitt corroborated or confirmed this: "He was just like any other man, but that he was unlike other men. He was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were, or that could become." Later, Hugo compared him to the ocean, which is the seedbed of all possible forms.
To be something is inexorably not to be all the other things; the confused intuition of this truth has induced mankind to imagine that being nothing is more than being something and is, in some way, to be every thing. This fallacy is inherent in the words of that legendary king of India who renounces power and goes out to beg in the streets: "From this day forward I have no realm or my realm is limitless, from this day forward my body does not belong to me or all the earth belongs to me." Schopenhauer has written that history is an interminable and perplexing dream of human generations; in the dream there are recurring forms, perhaps nothing but forms; one of them is the process reported on this page.