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Beyond arithmetic, the number one expands in significance to ideas of oneness, singularity, detachment, and unity.
In this series of BahaiTeachings.org articles about the spiritual significance of numbers, we first examined the number one in two ways (The Number 1: Unity and Diversity, and The Spirituality of Numbers: Oneness and Detachment). Now, in these next two articles, we’ll take a look at the spiritual significance of the numbers three and six—and find that they symbolize human nature.
The Christian saint and philosopher Augustine of Hippo wrote in The City of God that:
Man is an intermediate being, but intermediate between beasts and angels. A beast is irrational and mortal, while an angel is rational and immortal.
Earlier, the Roman Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus wrote similarly in his Fifth Ennead:
But humanity, in reality, is poised midway between gods and beasts, and inclines now to the one order, now to the other; some men grow like to the divine, others to the brute, the greater number stand neutral.
A thousand years later, Alexander Pope made a similar observation in his Essay on Man:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great …
The great Andalusian Sufi poet and philosopher Ibn Arabi identified the word “barzakh” from Qur’an 55:19-20 as an isthmus separating the material and spirit worlds, metaphorically portrayed in those verses by the salty and sweet seas. To Ibn Arabi, barzakh represents this intermediate realm, this middle state habitable by the human soul. This limit interposes between, yet paradoxically joins, the physical/intelligible world and the higher world of spirit. His metaphysical analysis corresponds well with Pope’s poetic sentiment.
All of these insights reflect a widely-held understanding of human nature as existentially transitional—“midway between gods and beasts.”
From the point of view of the Baha’i Teachings, human nature fits this archetypal two-fold, or expansively, three-fold model:
In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 61.
In both descriptions we find the human being standing in a middle state between two opposites, an intermediate and transitional condition. On this spiritual isthmus, each rational soul positions itself, chooses its path, and makes its life choices regarding its material and spiritual realities.
Through the unique human capacity of conscious will power, at the juncture where thoughts turn to action, the soul can either capitulate to the siren calls of its lower nature, and live solely to satisfy material desires and egotistical demands (“he lives to the world alone”); or, it can restrain and detach from these cravings, and with the divine assistance ascend to its positive condition, where “he approaches God.” But there is a conflict, because as Abdu’l-Baha indicates, the “signs of both these natures are to be found in men.”
People commonly vacillate, stranded on Pope’s isthmus, shifted into Plotinus’ neutral gear, wondering which way to go, or whether to move at all. This three-way conflict identifies a common condition in human nature, where both the negative side and the positive side engage in a sort of tug-of-war with the man in the middle. We all experience it, and often suffer the consequences. It can be a powerfully negative combination, or the proving ground where the heat of tests and trials distils out the lower, base elements and concentrates the higher, spiritual elements of human nature.
The Baha’i teachings hold that each person can, through their own volition and in response to the call of the prophet of God, effect this positive change:
All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. Your own acts testify to this truth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 149.
Next: The Spiritual Significance of the Number Six