The Mystery of the One and the Many: An Introduction

Written by Autumn Kennedy

Published on June 6, 2024

     The mystery of the one and the many is that to be is to be one (Aquinas, Summa I-I, q.11, a.1). It is best to begin with a story. Ezekiel 37 recounts the story of the valley of dry bones, in which God, through the prophecy of Ezekiel, miraculously turns skeletons into an army of living men. The Greek verb legw expresses the process of creation. Legw means “to gather together,” “collect,” or “choose.” God gathers together the bones, He collects them, and He chooses specific ones to make each specific creature in the army. But He must have some reason for choosing the specific bones and collecting them in a specific way. It is because He has a specific creature in mind that He wants to raise up from the bones. There is an intended result of the process. The noun form of legw is logos, which means “reason,” “word,” or “principle.” God has a logos in mind when He is choosing the bones, and this logos is a living creature. The end result of “living creature” is the reason why He chose certain bones; the living creature is the principle by which God decides how to gather together the bones. (Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, 19-22). The living creature is the content of the words which God commanded Ezekiel to speak over the bones (Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 50-63). Out of many bones God made each body, and they each became a single body. Then God breathed one breath into all of them, and they became one living army of many men. What the story tells us is that creation is a “one of many.” Both the process of creating and the result of the process are a “one of many.”

     As the story recounts, God accomplishes the creation of man through speech. In speech, the mind has a concept within itself of what it wants to say. Based on the concept, it chooses words to express. The final product is the expressed words, which carry the concept within them. To use the terms from the story and the Greek terms, the mind collects (legw) bones (words) to express a logos. Out of many words, the mind chooses one to express a concept. The spoken word containing the logos is the living creature, made up of the vocabulary (the bones) and the meaning (the breath). 

     The purpose of speech is communication, so that many minds can possess the one concept within. The wonder of God’s speech, as shown by the story, is that He not only “makes Himself one” with another mind, but brings that very mind into being by communication. It is not that “it was there, and God spoke to it,” but rather that “God spoke to it, and it was there” (Gen. 1:3).

     Underlying the nature of speech is a more fundamental reality concerning the one and many. This reality comes from God, and Ezekiel 37 shows that it has great power. It is what Helen Keller perceived in order to realize that things had names, even though she could neither see, nor hear, nor speak. This is the reality of likeness, that concepts, words, and objects share a likeness. The Greek word for “likeness” is eidos (Plato, Meno, 872-873). Without eidos, there would be no reason (logos) for the mind to choose a certain word to express a concept. We also cannot know anything if concepts in the mind have no likeness to objects in the world. Objects, concepts, and words are not the same things, and yet they are like (Aristotle, On Interpretation, 16a4-9). Likeness is a “one of many:” the sameness is the one, and the otherness is the many. There is something one in the concept of an army, the word “army,” and the actual army of Ezekiel 37, and when the word of God from the mind of God is speaking, an actual army cannot but come into being. Yet, concepts, objects, and words are still different things. Similarly, when Helen could apprehend likeness, she could connect the cool liquid on one hand and the finger-writing on the other hand with a concept of water in her mind, though they were each discreet things. This likeness is the foundation of all learning and knowledge. That things have names is the evidence that they can be known. Thus, Helen went on to learn many things after learning what water was (Keller, The Story of My Life, 13-16).  Since names are the connection between words and objects according to a concept in the mind, that things have names is the evidence that they can be known.

     Not just any object has a likeness to any concept and any word. Some objects are not like some concepts, and some concepts are not like some words. This is important because determining likenesses is determining truth. God determines the likenesses of objects and concepts. Objects conform to God’s mind (this is ontological truth) and human minds conform to objects (this is logical truth). The likeness between concepts and words was partially determined by God, and partially by man. God called the light Day and the darkness Night, but Adam named the animals (Gen. 1:5, 2:19-20). Out of many differences, there is one way in which an object, a concept, and a word are similar. There is one eidos and one logos behind the many bones, the many living creatures, and the many words Ezekiel spoke (Arithmetic Course Packet 160-162).

     The process of being able to collect (legw) one eidos from many is learning, and Socrates captures the nature of learning when he simply calls it “recollection” (Plato, Meno, 880). While Plato intended it to mean that the mind was re-collecting a likeness from itself (made possible by reincarnation), the term is still a good one with an Aristotelian view of the forms (another word for “likeness” or eidos). We may say instead that the mind recollects, through the medium of creation, a likeness from the mind of God. God has “scattered” the forms in creation, and the human mind gathers them back together in order to know them. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out (Prov. 25:2).

     There are three stages of collecting the one from the many in learning, corresponding to the three acts of the mind in Aristotelian logic. The first stage is understanding, corresponding to the first act of the mind. In understanding, the mind, when presented with many sense perceptions of the same thing, is able to grasp a concept of the thing itself: the one substance out of the many accidents it is perceiving with the senses (Aristotle, On the Soul 9-19; Posterior Analytics, 269-270). But, to know if we have properly grasped the concept of a thing, to know if we have grasped its substance and not its accidents, we must define the thing, and we must move to the second act of the mind, judgment (Plato, Meno, 872). We must consider many concepts, not just one, and we must properly relate them.

     Definition is the second stage of collecting the one from the many in learning. A definition consists of a genus and a specific difference (Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, 1-10, 16-18; Linnaeus, Systema naturae, Introduction). The genus is the larger category of things to which the object in question belongs. The genus is the likeness between the object and other objects. Therefore, the genus is the one, and the object with other objects is the many. The specific difference, on the other hand, acts as both a “one” and a “many” in different respects. It is many because it is a difference: it is the thing which makes the object unlike anything else in the genus. It is the “one” because it is the very thing that gives the object its unity as that object.

     With definition and with understanding, truths can be reached. The mind can grasp something (understanding) and grasp that the thing is (definition). The mind can grasp essence and existence, and therefore can grasp the truth. The third stage of learning is to discover more truth from already-known truth, and thus to see the relationships between truths. It is to collect one truth from many truths. This uses the third act of the mind, which is reasoning. From many premises we may deduce one conclusion, or from many facts induce a general principle. The mind may raise an army of knowledge through these stages of learning.

     An army of knowledge is a science, and sciences operate on these layers of the one and the many. The natural science of biology clearly illustrates these layers of one and many in creation. The process of identifying all the layers of one and many, and all the creatures which inhabit them, is classification. Classification employs the two parts of definition (genus and specific difference) to display the real order of things (since definition expresses the real nature of things [Nicomachus, Introduction to Arithmetic, 811]). Classification unites things that are the same into genera and divides them according to specific difference (Linnaeus, Genera plantarum, Introduction). Thus, one corpus of living things has many kingdoms, each kingdom has many phyla, each phylum has many classes, and so on. Even each species has many individuals, but all are living. Life is the eidos they all share. The one eidos in which all things, living and nonliving, share is being, and thus God who is Being Himself holds all things together (Col. 1:17).

     However, the science which most clearly deals with the one and the many is arithmetic. In arithmetic, the one is the “unit” and the many is number. The unit is one, and it is not a number, but rather the source of all number. A number, on the other hand, is a multitude of units Euclid, Elements, 157). Arithmetic is not the study of the unit and of numbers directly, since this is impossible for us. The unit is characteristically one; things which are one may also be many (though not in the same respect), but the one itself cannot be many. To study the one as such, without any help from analogy, whether from creatures or from numbers, is beyond our rational capacity. On the other hand, number is characteristically many; things which are many may also be one (though, again, not in the same respect), but the many itself cannot be one. To study numbers as such, without any unity to make sense of its multiplicity, is impossible. There are an infinite number of numbers, and that is all we can know about them if we only study number itself. Jacob Klein writes, “Precisely because the arithmos [the number] as such is not one but many, its definition in particular cases can be understood only by finding the eidos which delimits its multiplicity, in other words, by means of arithmetike as a theoretical discipline” (Klein, Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, 56). In arithmetic, we study number kinds. We study the one in the many, not by studying the one (the unit) and the many (numbers) separately, but by finding the likeness among the many numbers. Since the source of number, the unit, cannot be studied directly, we study instead its closest image among the numbers. The first likeness amongst numbers, or the first division of kinds of number, is the odd and the even.

     This theoretical discipline of arithmetic works because it accords with reality. As we saw in Ezekiel 37, the created universe is a one of many. It is in the name: “universe” means “one of ways.” The name identifies the only way the universe could possibly be. There can only be anything other than God if it is a “one of many.” It cannot be only many, for then it cannot exist at all, since to be is to be one. However, it cannot be only one, for that is God. Therefore, it must partake of God’s unity in reflected, imitative form: a one of many. The multiplicity of the universe is what Aristotle would call “that which is clearer to us,” and the unity of the universe is “that which is more obscure to us, but clearer by nature” (Aristotle, Physics, I.1). It seems clear to us that things are many, for we are surrounded by many things all the time. It is not as obvious to us how things are one, but we know that they must be. It is absurd for there to be no unity (Parmenides, On Nature), but it is also absurd for there to be no multiplicity.

     This problem, that we perceive only multiplicity but know there must be unity, is called the problem of change. The pursuit of philosophy is to solve this problem; it is the search for the one. Arithmetic provides a paradigm for philosophy, and by finding number kinds, we are trained for the search of God. The search for God is how we mirror God’s act of creation of bringing one out of many; it is how we are “sub-creators” (Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”). It is how we know the truth, how we behold through the mirror of creation the mind of God.

     Herein lies a greater mystery (or perhaps the same one, but more fully revealed). The search of philosophy for the one does not only mean a search for being or Being Himself. For God by nature and for man by grace, being means life, and life means beatitude. The Lord interprets the miracle of the dry bones for Ezekiel, and He does not interpret it only as a “creation” story. Creation for man means the vision of God: “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).



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