Modern biology has been telling us that all living matter may be reduced to code stored in the DNA. Physics may be reduced to mathematical formulae, which in turn can be distilled down to numbers, the most elusive of all our objects of thought. This sounds advanced and modern enough, but, as a classical scholar once put it, there is nothing about today’s knowledge that the ancients or the medievals didn’t have at least an intuition about.
Take Dante. In a typical effort of fusing together ancient and medieval natural philosophy, he concludes that everything in the natural world is made up of numbers. We might say code to sound quantum-modern, but the idea’s the same.
How does Dante work this out? As usual, few of his ideas are original. His originality lies, rather, in weaving together multiple traditions and strands of thought available in 13th- and 14th-century Western Europe.
In the Convivio, he says:
Non solamente in tutti insieme, ma ancora in ciascuno è numero, chi ben considera sottilmente; per che Pittagora, secondo che dice Aristotile nel primo de la Fisica, poneva li principii de le cose naturali lo pari e lo dispari, considerando tutte le cose esser numero. (Convivio, 2.13.18)
Number exists not only in all of them together [matter, privation, form], but also, upon careful reflection, in each one individually; for this reason Pythagoras, as Aristotle says in the first book of the Physics, laid down even and odd as the principles of natural things, considering all things to have numerical aspect.
He gets to Pythagoras through Aristotle’s first book of Physics and to Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. The odd and even numbers echo the binary system we have built the cyber-world on. And Dante has much to say, of course, about the way we experience such a world, in all its multiplicity. But for that, we need to follow him down, then up, through numbers, circles, spirals and spheres.