The Great Conversation:
One & Many

By Matt McKeown

"One" and "more than one" do not seem like complex ideas on the surface ...

The “problem of the one and the many” is, well, one of the many bequeathed to us by ancient Greece, going as far back as the sixth century BC. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Studies in Words, “The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had had the idea of taking all the things they knew or believed in—gods, men, animals, plants, minerals, what you will—and impounding them under a single name; in fact, of regarding Everything as a thing, turning this amorphous and heterogeneous collection into an object or pseudo-object.” How, and in what sense, we are supposed to regard everything as one is thus introduced into intellectual discourse.

The pre-Socratics themselves often answered that what constituted unity in diversity was the fact that everything was made of the same “stuff.” A popular choice was one of the four classical elements (fire, air, water, and earth); Thales, the first of the pre-Socratics, claimed that it was water, while his successor Anaximander said that the fundamental matter was “the infinite,” out of which contraries like wet and dry slowly distinguished themselves. In some ways, modern atomic theory, which identifies the variety of elements as being made of the same material operating in different ways and proportions, and embraces the Einsteinian doctrine that matter and energy are interchangeable, has resurrected this monistic concept of nature.

Pythagoras, unlike the other pre-Socratics, asserted that all is number; what exactly he meant by that is more difficult to say, except that the mathematical study of the world, especially geometry and music, was a key element of the Pythagorean school. It is certainly true that everything seems to be measurable in terms of numbers—the fact that we can count virtues or minds or ideas, all immaterial things, as readily as we can count seeds or books, is quite strange when you come to think of it. Yet measurement has its own attendant problems: irrational numbers and incommensurable quantities suggest material reality is not fully measurable (and by some accounts, greatly disturbed the Pythagoreans when they first discovered them).

Plato‘s doctrine of the Forms is also arguably an offshoot of the problem of the one and the many. In calling all seeds “seeds,” we are asserting a unity, but there are obviously lots of individual seeds. Plato resolved this oneness by asserting that everything which really exists has a single Form, an eternal and immaterial idea that matter can reflect or imitate; thus the “many” part of the paradox is in a sense an illusion, while the oneness is primary and controlling.

Ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή.
The road upwards and downwards are one and the same.

But the physical is, predictably, only one aspect of the paradox of the one and the many. Attempts to resolve all minds into one mind, or all existence into one, are common trends in philosophy too, in the East as well as the West. Many, though by no means all, traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism embrace a form of spiritual monism; in Hinduism this is frequently expressed as pantheism, notably in the Bhagavad Gītā. In the European tradition, spiritual monism has been a little rarer, though not absent; the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, defined in the early fourth century, has tended pretty consistently to militate against philosophical monism—but of course the European tradition has always included many non-Christian elements. The Muslim writer Averroës set forth a doctrine of “unity of the intellect” which treated the human mind as a single, unitary thing, expressed in individual persons but not truly individual. Despite opposition by figures like St. Thomas and the Franciscan school of Catholic theology, Averroism was a popular view in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

From this metaphysical concern with unity-in-diversity, two further branches extend: the psychological unity of the person, and the political unity of a society. The former is of course part of the subject matter of psychology and psychiatry, covering everything from the different faculties and desires that make up a person to the phenomenon of dissociative identities. The latter is a perennial problem of human life. Very few if any human beings are capable of living in total solitude, and thus civilizations are built up, which demand some kind of unifying agent to weld their many-ness into something that does not destroy itself. Monarchy and democracy have been the favorite solutions of the social one-and-many paradox, historically speaking, with chess-like benefits and drawbacks to each.

Suggested reading:
Plato, Parmenides
The Lotus Sūtra
Quicunque Vult
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
John Stuart Mill, Representative Government
Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, The Three Faces of Eve


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other posts on the great ideas, like beauty, infinity, and wealth. And don’t miss our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals and activists to discuss issues of education, policy, and culture.

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