Tolkien, Fabre d’Olivet, and the Great Triad (A Note)

It behoves me to issue a self-correction, with regards to my last post about the Platonic Soul in Tolkien’s work. On reading into the symbolism of the right-angled triangle, in René Guénon’s The Great Triad, I realised I had mapped out the correspondences between the Soul and Lingard’s geometry poorly. This is how Guenon expresses it, following in the Pythagorean tradition:

The equilibrium between Will and Providence on the one hand and Destiny on the other was symbolised geometrically by a right-angled triangle with sides proportionally equivalent to the numbers 3, 4 and 5. This triangle played a major role in Pythagoreanism; remarkably, it had no less important a role in the Far-Eastern tradition. If the number 3 stands for Providence, 4 for the human Will and 5 for Destiny, we end up with 32 + 42 = 52 (9 + 16 = 25).

The hypotenuse = 5 in this case, and, following the Pythagorean philosopher Fabre d’Olivet, Guénon associates it with Destiny (or Necessity). Providence in this case signifies the activity of God (the One), whereas Destiny signifies the constraints arising from the complexity of the world (the Many). The Will represents Man in relation to these two principles. On the one hand, the grace from God; and on the other the constraints imposed on him by his condition in the world. Providence is “Above” and Destiny/Necessity “Below” (see The Great Triad for a more thorough explanation). This is, incidentally, what I think is at stake in Hamlet:

“What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all – believe none of us.”

The crawling here is expressing this sense of being trapped between Providence and Destiny – Hamlet cannot trust in God (his conscience), and the world around him seems to be forcing him (by Necessity – the pressures the world exerts upon Man) towards a certain course of action.

I think the important thing to mention is that Destiny is really a complement to Providence (Cf. Plotinus’ ideas of double activity, and procession and return). That said, when it goes off on its own, or opposes the Will of Heaven, it becomes evil. The whole association of the Underworld with evil and death may be expressed thus – it is Earth/Necessity (the lower principle) obscured and submerged in darkness. In other words, cut off from the light of Heaven – the activity of God. That is why the hypotenuse conforms to a ‘terrestrial number’, as Guénon has it, and how the Pythagorean tradition confirms Lingard’s intuition about its ambivalence.

If we want to think about these ideas in a different way, I would refer to what Aristotle says about ‘secondary causality’ which is another way of framing what I’m driving at when I talk about Necessity/Destiny here. Providence is the ‘first cause’ or ‘pure actuality’.

Guénon goes on:

This triangle occurs also in Masonic symbolism, as can be noted from our earlier reference to it in connection with the Worshipful Master’s square; the complete triangle also features in the insignia of the Past Master. We may mention at this point that a considerable portion of Masonic symbolism derives directly from Pythagoreanism via an unbroken ‘chain’ including the Roman Collegia fabrorum and the medieval builders’ guilds. The triangle we are discussing here is one example of this direct transmission; the Blazing Star-identical to the Pentalpha which was used by the Pythagoreans as a means of mutual recognition-is another.


Here again we find 3 as a ‘celestial’ number and 5 as a ‘terrestrial’ number, just as in the Far-Eastern tradition. However there is one difference: in that tradition the two numbers are not regarded as correlatives, because 3 is coupled with 2 and 5 with 6 as we explained earlier. As for the number 4, it corresponds to the cross as symbol of ‘Universal Man’.

If Lingard’s number symbolism in Tolkien is correct, I would bet it’s Pythagorean in origin, given all he has uncovered so far.

Now if there is such an unbroken ‘chain’ as Guénon describes, then the author he quotes more than any other in The Great Triad, Fabre d’Olivet, must have belonged to it in some respect. A French Neopythagorean of the 19th century, and a philologist specialising in ancient Semitic languages, Fabre d’Olivet wrote a commentary on The Golden Verses of Pythagoras. It is from this work that Guénon cites d’Olivet’s definition of the great triad of Providence, Will, and Necessity.

[I]t is Nature that presides at our birth, that gives us a father, a mother, brothers, sisters, relations of kinship, a position upon the earth, and a place in society; all this depends not upon us: all this, according to the vulgar, is the work of hazard; but according to the Pythagorean philosopher these are the consequences of an anterior order, severe and irresistible, called Fortune or Necessity. Pythagoras opposed to this restrained nature, a free Nature, which, acting upon forced things as upon brute matter, modifies them and draws as it wills, good or bad results. This second nature was called Power or Will: it is this which rules the life of man, and which directs his conduct according to the elements furnished him by the first. Necessity and Power are, according to Pythagoras, the two opposed motives of the sublunary world where man is relegated. These two motives draw their force from a superior cause that the ancients named Nemesis, the fundamental decree, that we name Providence. Thus then, Pythagoras recognized, relative to man, things constrained and things free, according as they depend upon Necessity or the Will[.]

The idea of the great triad, which I’ve tried to explain a bit in this article, has some ramifications for The Lord of the Rings I think. The French word d’Olivet associates with the Will is puissance, (power). I reckon there is much to be discovered in relation to Aragorn, as he is associated with ‘need’ or ‘necessity’ on the one hand and ‘power’ or ‘puissance’ on the other. It always struck me as odd that Tolkien should use the French term ‘puissant’ to describe him, given Tolkien’s general aversion to French in all other contexts. I suspect that this ties in very closely with the whole question of Fatalism and Anankê in the Rings.

Perhaps Tolkien read the Golden Verses themselves; at the least I suspect that he was acquainted with some Pythagorean ideas through reading Plato and Aristotle. Thus could he have come across the triad in its original context, as d’Olivet cites it below, with his own commentary:

[Verse 6:] a most rigid law Binds Power to Necessity.

[d’Olivet:] Here is the proof of what I said just now, that Pythagoras recognized two motives of human actions, the first, issuing from a constrained nature, called Necessity; the second emanating from a free nature, called Power, and both dependent upon an implied primordial law. This doctrine was that of the ancient Egyptians, among whom Pythagoras had imbibed it. “Man is mortal with reference to the body,” they said, “but he is immortal with reference to the soul which constitutes essential man. As immortal he has authority over all things; but relative to the material and mortal part of himself, he is subject to destiny.”

I therefore have to revise some of the statements I made in my blog post about the way this triad maps onto the dialectic! If we’re thinking of the geometry, it is the opp. which represents Will or Power, the hypotenuse which represents Necessity, and the adjacent plane which represents Providence, while the door (right-angle) is their primordial source in which they are united.

This triad thus harmonises much better with Plato’s tripartite soul, since the appetite is associated with necessity – the material world – whereas the reason or intellect is associated with providence. Compare Plato’s Phaedo, in which he describes the soul through the rather imperfect analogy of a chariot driver (the intellect) who has two horses drawing him (associated with will and appetite). The intellect knows the truth, apprehending it directly, but the will is the part of the soul that really deliberates and decides the course; appetite, of course, tries to go its own way.

Tolkien certainly understood the distinction between discursive reasoning and the intellect. As he put it in a letter to his son Christopher:

I have since thought that one of the reasons why one can’t recapture the wonderful argument or secret when one wakes up is simply because there was not one: but there was (often maybe) a direct appreciation by the mind (sc. reason [the intellect!]) but without the chain of argument we know in our time-serial life.

The mind perceives truth directly, without the need to deliberate; which is the role of the will.

This much should suffice as a follow-up to my last post about the Platonic Soul, but allow me finally to say that Fabre d’Olivet may be a useful source in other ways than this. Not only may he be a potential bridge between Tolkien’s ideas and those of John Dee (if there is any such connection there), but he also wrote a large treatise about the Hebrew language (and the Sepher of Moses), which is one of the few really illustrative indexes of Hebrew word roots that I’ve been able to find. If we’re thinking about the transmission of such knowledge, it’s safe to say that he’s a very helpful link in the chain.

One thought on “Tolkien, Fabre d’Olivet, and the Great Triad (A Note)

  1. I’ll read it soon Joseph. I still have a lengthy reply to the last one. Btw I agree that I think you’re probably right in mapping appetite to the adj, and will to the hypotenuse. I actually think that Tolkien might be duplicating the opp and adj on the hypotenuse, giving it its ambivalence. The logic would be found in the hands sequence of Ilúvatar. Both hands (reason and appetite) = hypotenuse. I have all of the Guenon books now and I’m going through the Waite Kabbalah too. On page 11 Waite compares the two literal and secret doctrines as the obverse and reverse sides of a page. That’s exactly what Tolkien does in the Book of Ishness and in the West Gate illustration. In Ishness he put his monogram on the reverse cover of the book as a mirror image. In the West Gate he drew the minotaur on the reverse which can be superimposed over the obverse image by holding the page up to the light. That duplicates the moon runes method from the West Gate that he wanted in the published version of The Lord of the Rings. “The Secret Doctrine is rather the sense below the sense which is found in the literal word- as if one story were writtten on the obverse side of the parchment and another on the reverse side.”

    But it wasn’t published until 1926. Much too late to have influenced Ishness.

    Waite also talks about the written and oral law. Tolkien makes the same distinction into A and B. The two form the basis of transmission of lore. Truth can only be found in harmonizing the two as sight (A) and hearing (B): Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw (Lhaw being a hint at “law”). God’s order being hearing->sight->both (Truth). His poem Lit and Lang incorporates the basis of this as a ridldle. The whole idea of a homopheme, which is where Tolkien’s love of puns comes in. I think he generates his “peredixion” of two auguries from birds from that. I’m making a little more progress from the Waite regarding the monogram. Fire and Air are at the top, Water and Earth at the bottom. Earth = closed circle of the circle at the end of the letter J. Water = the bend. This is mentioned in Tolkien Studies as a curved mark in Japanese kanji (apropos of soku) as symbolizing water or wood. Malkuth, which would be at the bottom of the monogram is associated with the feet and the anus. The Devil’s mouth is at his anus. So the dragon’s mouth at the bottom (the dragon being inverted to the tree, T) of the monogram agrees with this. But I think there also might be a mouth at the top too. Waite refers to a “counterchange” between top and bottom (inner, outer etc) correspondencies, which appears in Zoharic doctrine, where the oral and written laws are inverted. The idea being the Kemet and Malkuth are contained in each other, yin yang, etc. In the monogram that would create a mirror along the horizontal plane. The two Rs indicate the mirror on the vertical plane. This all ties into the idea that there might be two circles turning in opposite directions. One useful thing is we can see that the West Gate is the anus, because the Devil’s mouth is the Door. That’s the Gaping mouth of Hell of course. His minotaur image nails that association. The explanation for the Dunharrow Gate being an anus can be explained as an outer incarnation of the inner spiritual reality. Men have deemed this place to be hell, as the bottom (Blackroot, Morthond). Blackroot is actually at Carn dum. So, anus – bottom, the “bitter bottom”. Tolkien jests 😀 Aragorn sees through this. Trusts to his faith. An act of a “good heart”.

    I looked at Tolkien’s calque of the Koh-i-Noor diamond as the Arkenstone. Surrounding his incorporation of that in The Hobbit, is the story of the 40 camels, and the Koh-i-Noor being hidden in the 40th one. Bilbo is the 40th camel. Camels = elephants from their confusion, as the elephant appears in The Hobbit. The original Zohar, Book of Splendour, was said to be extensive, described as a “camel load”. It’s possible that Tolkien was aware of this reference. Bilbo’s secret then becomes the “secret doctrine”, that being Tolkien’s secret. I do think he read the Zohar.

    “Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. But Ilúvatar arose in splendour, and he went forth from the fair regions that he had made for the Ainur; and the Ainur followed him.”

    I’ll send it all over with my latest reply to your last dialectic post.

    Best Regards, Carl


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