Beauty - By The Numbers

November 11, 2015

 If you're not going to be an accountant or mathematician, why bother with mathematics?
Three words: work, wisdom, and wonder.
We all recognize that mathematics is worthwhile for accomplishing certain tasks and pursuing certain careers.  We’re perhaps less aware of its ability to train the mind in how to think.  In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers promoted algebra and geometry as sub-departments of logic—“the rule of the syllogism in its particular application to number and measurement.”  This is one reason why, for thousands of years, thinkers have viewed these subjects as essential to a good education.  Above Plato’s Academy stood the inscription: “Let none ignorant of geometry enter here!”



In addition to its usefulness for work and wisdom, there’s a third reason to study mathematics: it can cultivate wonder in God’s creation.


According to Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain, the ancients “treated numbers not just as a practical tool, but as a locus of wonder and mystery.”  Our educational forefathers believed that the numerical order of reality is symbolic—it reflects something about its Creator.  And they held that numerical relationships represent deeper harmonies, patterns and truths in creation. 
For example, Stratford Caldecott notes that the Western intellectual tradition associated numbers with not just quantitative but also qualitative meaning:


One was considered the source and archetype of Unity; it’s the number that is a part of all other numbers
Two represented polarity and division, but also the potential for fruitfulness (male and female)
Three demonstrated the reconciliation of one (unity) and two (diversity) in harmony
Four represented earth or the material order: four points of a compass leading to “four corners of the earth” consisting of four elements (earth, water, air, fire) found in four states (solid, liquid, gas, plasma)
Five was associated with the human body: five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), five appendages to the torso (arms, legs and head), five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, and five openings on the face
Six represented creation (six days in which God created)
Seven expressed totality or fullness; it is the number of creation days + one day of rest and the sum of four (material order) + three (God: Trinity); it was also associated with covenants—the Hebrew word for swearing an oath literally means “to seven oneself


Most schools no longer teach the symbolic nature of numbers.  We’re thus less sensitive to math’s ability to express deeper truths about—and cultivate wonder in—the world.  For instance, if we understand the theological significance of seven, would it not heighten our wonder to find its mark throughout God’s creation?  As an example, our ears distinguish seven notes in a scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti) and our eyes distinguish seven colours in a rainbow (ROYGBIV).  One might conclude that we’re wired not only for a world charged with divine grandeur but also for a covenant with its Creator!
In eliminating the qualitative dimension of mathematics and focusing exclusively on the quantitative, we also weaken appreciation for the beauty of the relationships between numbers and, going further, the beauty of the comparisons between those relationships. For example, the most elegant comparison of numerical relationships is called the “golden” or “divine” ratio: a relates to a+b similarly as b relates to a.  That is, the relation of the larger section of a line to the whole line has the same proportion as the relation of the smaller section to the larger section.


This “golden” relationship contains three (measurements) that are two (sections) that are one (line).  Robert Lawler sees the golden ratio as a transcription into mathematics of the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). 
Again, it should provoke wonder that the golden ratio is found throughout the human body and the natural world, and people often consider it the most visually satisfying of all geometric forms. It so happens that this ratio defines the relationship of a person’s hand to his forearm and the distance from one’s eye to nose compared to that of eye to chin. It is present (among other places) in the Egyptian Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and Seurat’s Bathers. It is even incorporated in the Apple computer logo and the spacing of the indentations on a Pepsi bottle!


The Millis Institute agrees with Michael S. Schneider in concluding that, “Numbers are a map of the beautiful order of the universe, the plan by which the divine Architect transformed undifferentiated Chaos into orderly Cosmos.” We believe that a good liberal arts education engages both the quantitative and qualitative nature of numbers; they not only provide use in pursuing work and wisdom, but they also develop a sense of wonder...and, ultimately, worship!



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