The Number Seventy-Two

Renaissance writers and artists, and those who have modeled themselves after such thinkers, were notorious for their deeply layered masques.  Leonardo da Vinci was known for hiding the number seventy-two in his art works, including having 72 panels above the table in his painting “The Last Supper” and even hiding the number in the Mona Lisa.  William Shakespeare, according to some commentators, constructed a meaning behind many of his plays where blond-haired women represented Protestantism and dark-haired women represented Catholicism, making his physical portrayals based on the divide between Northern and Southern Europe into a larger aspect of moral symbolism.  C.S. Lewis wrote an entire children’s series where, for decades, the planetary aspects of the seven novels of his series and their relationship with the discredited pre-Copurnican planetary system of the Middle Ages was largely unrecognized [1].  Other, more obscure, artists like Lyly and Johnson and Moliere wrote elaborate masques full of double meanings for the monarchs they served, monarchs who prided themselves on seeing the hidden truths behind the surface appearances they saw.  Are there any insights we can gain from the historical pattern of having large numbers of layers within various texts?

Most people, even if they do not realize it, are familiar with layered texts.  Aside from the fact that anyone who reads my own writings is reading layered texts, whether they are aware of it or not, even those unfamiliar with my own complex creations are often familiar with texts that are full of intentional deeper meaning.  The Bible, for example, is full of deeper meanings in the patterns of its numbers, one of which, 72, represents the number of nations made up of the whole of humanity after the flood and the number of leaders in the Sanhedrin as well as those who were given the Holy Spirit to assist Moses, which was a number of particular importance, as we have noted, to Leonardo da Vinci.  Likewise, the Bible is full of hints and secondary layers of meaning through principles of dualism and allegory that apply in addition to the surface meaning of the text [2].  Children’s novels have been a fruitful place for people to go to find deeper meaning [3], such as the case of The Wizard of Oz being seen by some as an allegory of the debate over the United States being on the gold standard, where Oz is not only a land but is also evocative of the ounces (shortened as oz) by which gold and other previous metals are measured.

A proper understanding of layered texts gives us a sense of great appreciation for the skill of the authors of such texts.  It is little wonder that C.S. Lewis, an Oxbridge don and classical scholar who spent much of his professional career studying and teaching out of the texts of the Middle Ages and so-called Renaissance, modeled his own writing after the layered texts he worked so closely with, having adopted their approach for many of the same reasons.  Those who write layered texts have a difficult task, in that they must construct works which have a comprehensible and often enjoyable surface meaning while simultaneously also providing a deeper layer of meaning that offers a different level of enjoyment to a different audience.  Many contemporary children’s movies, at least the best of them, offer somewhat silly fun for children while providing amusing and daring double meanings and witty puns for the adults who are forced to watch the movie with the children, thus allowing everyone to find enjoyment on their own level.  Rather than being dishonest or deceitful, this layering of meaning is often the result of aiming the same text at different audiences and needing to provide pleasure to both audiences at the same time, and managing the task successfully requires great skill and deserves our appreciation.

There are, of course, additional reasons why people would feel it necessary to layer the meaning of the texts that they create.  In the Renaissance, for example, many thinkers and intellectuals were involved in very dangerous business.  Many of them had interests in the occult, like the court physician of Queen Elizabeth I, or engaged in practices like surreptitiously digging up the graves of dead people in order to conduct clandestine autopsies to improve understanding in anatomy, like da Vinci, possessed religious and political views that were at variance with the practices of the political and religious elites of their realms, or were involved in other behaviors that were contrary to legal or accepted norms.  In all such situations where thinkers are cognizant of the dangers of their particular situation, where their personal integrity is at odds with their survival and freedom and public reputation, the tendency to carefully layer deeper and unsettling truths behind innocuous surface appearances is an omnipresent solution to the intolerable stresses and pressures of such an existence.  No age in history has been free from such pressures, as there has always been wickedness and injustice that was supported by the coercive power of the state, making those who opposed such evil into either secret foes to be ferreted out through spycraft or open rebels and traitors to be punished through exile, imprisonment, and death as an example to encourage others like them.  Let us not delude ourselves that our present situation is absent from such troubles as faced the thinkers of previous generations.

As is the case often, the question is what is the takeaway that we can gain through an adept understanding in the behaviors of thinkers in previous generations.  Where it is necessary to conceal what cannot be safely revealed, but where we still find it necessary to speak to those who are capable of understanding us, there are a variety of strategies that can be adopted.  We can write using symbolic language that admits of multiple applications so as to speak to many situations at once in an economy of words that sacrifcies some specificity of detail for a greater ability to apply what is read or seen.  In addition, we can adopt the approach of making subtle references and puns that clue those with the necessary knowledge and context into the deeper meanings present in our works, while avoiding the charges that our writings are mere allegory which lack sufficient psychological depth to be satisfying on the surface level.  We can adopt a complex strategy of targeting the same message to multiple audiences, knowing that different elements of the message are likely to appeal to different parts of the audience, forcing more work on the creator, but with a much more satisfying result for the audience.  We may adopt a consistent pattern of using certain words to refer to certain contexts, such that the presence of the word in our texts may lead the wise and alert reader to recognize the relationship between a text and its larger context, which the uninformed or unobservant reader will pass over in without recognizing.  Of course, it should be freely admitted that those who adopt such methods are likely to be frequently misunderstood, but sometimes it is even more dangerous to be correctly understood, and the only choice we have is whether to be condemned for the truth of our existence, or to live uncomfortably behind the mask.  Evil times are just as dangerous for good men as a decent social order is for men who wish to disguise their evil.  If we suspect that someone is wearing a disguise, we must ask ourselves whether the greater evil comes from the man behind the mask, or the age that compels people to wear the mask.  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to The Number Seventy-Two

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