Chiastic Kingship

On the Symbolic World website Cormac Jones recently published an article of immense depth on the concept of the “Chiasmus,” the cross or “Chi” literary structure found in many older texts. The concept gets its name from the Greek letter “Chi” which is written in the form of an “X.” Jones makes many startling observations about the biblical texts, noting that chiastic structure runs rampant throughout the Bible. He gives numerous examples, among them, this one from Matthew 7:4-5

Or here in Matthew 13

As Jones points out, the word “parable” has geometric implications–the parabolic arc bends up or down and then returns on its former path, so it makes sense that a parable would do likewise. We must not assume it mere coincidence that Jesus’ used the parable as His primary method of teaching. As St. Nikolai Velimirović noted,

The whole world is one long parable, made up of innumerable parables. This world and all that is in it is as ephemeral as a tale that is told. But the spiritual kernel that is hidden within the layers of every parable is enduring and does not decay. Those who nourish only their eyes and ears by these parables remain spiritually hungry, for the spirit is nourished by the kernel of these parables, and they are not capable of penetrating to this kernel. An unspiritual, sensual man feeds on the green leaves of many parables, and remains always hungry and restless from this hunger. A spiritual man seeks the kernel of these manifold parables and, feeding on it, becomes satisfied and filled with peace. All things that exist are parables, for they are all, like green leaves or layers, wrapped round the hidden kernel. All that happens is the stuff of parable, for it is the clothing for the spiritual content, kernel, and nourishment.

Placed in this world, man is as though encompassed by a sea of God’s wisdom expressed in parables. But he who looks on this wisdom only with his eyes sees nothing but the vesture in which this wisdom is clothed; he looks, and sees the vesture of nature, but does not see its spirit and kernel; he listens, and hears nature, but he hears only empty voices, not understanding their meaning. The eye is not given to see nature’s kernel, nor the ear given to hear its meaning. Spirit finds spirit; meaning looks to meaning; understanding meets understanding; love senses love.

All spiritual truth is from the other world — the spiritual, heavenly world — and it can be perceived and grasped only with spiritual sight, hearing, and understanding. But these spiritual truths are set forth in this world under the form of things and incidents. Many have lost the sight, hearing, and understanding of spiritual truths. Many only see the form, and only listen to the outward voice, and understand only the outward content, form, and nature of things and incidents. This is bodily sight, bodily hearing, and bodily understanding. The Lord Jesus knew men’s blindness and therefore, as a most wise Teacher, led men from bodily subjects to spiritual, and from physical facts to spiritual. He therefore spoke to them in parables — in a form that was able to be grasped by their sight, hearing, and understanding.

Jones continues to point out the chiastic structure not just of certain biblical passages, but whole books of the Bible (you can find such outlines and commentary on his website), and why the chiastic structure is ideally five-fold, rooted in St. Maximus’ concept of being, well-being, and eternal being:

. . . that there are three modes, inasmuch as the total principle of the whole coming into being of rational substances is seen to have mode of being, of well-being, and eternal-being; and that of being is first given to beings by essence; that of well-being is granted to them second, by their power to choose, inasmuch as they are self-moved; and that of eternal-being is lavished on them third, by grace. And the first contains potential, the second activity, and the third, rest from activity

St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigum 65

He gives a quick outline of this as

He then goes on to argue that chiasm ideally functions in a five fold manner, writing,

So when the B in the A-B-A’ itself expands to a-b-a’ you end up with something fivefold, something expressible as A-B-C-B’-A’. You could acknowledge this basic form as the result of the threefold chiastic minimum combined with the most basic fractal understanding, or you could see in the expansion from three to five the wedding between man and God — between God’s agency and man’s agency. That’s the cosmic story. It can be expressed in simplest terms thus:

More specifically:

Which also has expression as a parabola [i.e., a “parable,”] or cosmic mountain:

I will spare the reader an entire recapitulation of his excellent article, but it is this space in the middle, the center of the ‘X,’ that allows the “division” between the A and B elements of chiasms to have resolution.

Coincidentally, the number 5 has a long history of importance within the Christian tradition. This may have its origin in the symbolic role of the hand itself as what orients, directs, and confers power and blessing. The Church developed this further with the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of Mary, and other emblems around the number five.

Sympathy stands as one mark of the best historians, and that quality shines out in Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic The King’s Two Bodies, which examines medieval political theology. He begins his study by looking at Edmund Plowden’s Reports, which date from the 16th century. The issue involved whether or not King Edward VI could dispense with property he held privately, though he was legally underage to do so? Plowden writes,

By the Common Law no Act which the King does as King shall be defeated by his Nonage [i.e., being underage].  For the King has in him two Bodies, a body natural and a Body politic.  His Body natural, if it be considered in itself, is a Body mortal, subject to all infirmities that come by Nature or Accident . . . . But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the direction of the People and the management of the Public weal.  This body is utterly void of infancy, and of old age, and other natural defects which the Body natural is subject to.  For this cause, what the king does in his Body politic cannot be frustrated by any disability in his natural Body.

Therefore, when the two Bodies are become as one Body, to which no Body is equal, this double Body, whereof the Body politic is greater, cannot hold in jointure with any single one.

Yet, despite the unity of the two Bodies, his capacity to take in the Body natural is not confounded by the Body politic, but remains still.

Notwithstanding that these two Bodies are at one Time conjoined together, yet the Capacity of of the one does not confound the other, but they remain distinct Capacities.

Ergo, the Body natural and the Body politic are not distinct, but united as one Body.

Another earlier commentator known only as the “Norman Anonymous” wrote in a similar vein,

We thus have to recognize in the king a twin person, one descended from nature, the other from grace . .  One through which, through nature, he shares with other men: another through which . . . he excels all others.  Concerning one, he was by nature, an individual man: concerning his other personality, he was, by grace, a Christus.  

To the modern eye, raised on Occam’s Razor, this sounds at best convoluted, and perhaps even ridiculous–“byzantine” in its overwrought complexity. But Kantorowicz rightly points out that, while medievals viewed there theories as complex, they had an internal logic to them. Medievals took seriously the strange mystical nature of leadership, and applied their theology directly to difficulty political questions. Some may note the connection above with Trinitarian and Christological doctrines developed in the early church. Christianity is neither monistic or polytheistic–we have one God in three Persons. But more particularly, the theory of two bodies for the king has roots in the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), which affirmed that:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως – in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεόν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

In other words, Christ is one person, with two natures, and these two natures exist in concert with each other. The king reigns as an icon of Christ, and this means that he must show forth not just his power but his humility as well. Kantorowicz points out that for the first several centuries, Christian kingship had strong liturgical connections, especially related to Christ’s offering of Himself not just on the cross but continually in the eucharist, as Gregory of Bergamo explained,

One is the body which is the sacrament, another the body of which it is the sacrament . . . . One body of Christ which is he himself, and another body of which he is the head.

Kantorowicz asserts that problems with monarchy in the 17th century developed perhaps only when western civilization abandoned this theological tension. He quotes from the Puritans who remarked regarding Charles I along the lines of, “We fight the king to save the King,” as indicative of straying near the Monophysite heresy. Monophysites denied the Chalcedonian symbol, arguing that Christ essentially had only one divine nature, reducing his humanity to an outer shell. With this theological shift de-emphasizing Christ’s incarnation, the use of Christ as a model for kingship went out of fashion. Instead, Kantorowicz argues, God, or perhaps God the Father, became the image of earthly kingship. With the liturgical connection of descent, sacrifice, ascent then lost, the legal powers of kingship increased, and kingship became more absolute. This so-called growth of the power of the king actually foreshadowed its demise. Monarchy grew severed from its proper source, and came ripe for a fall.

The King’s Two Bodies has a great deal of thought provoking detail, tracing the development of the “two bodies” idea thoroughly. I thought Kantorowicz missed something in his analysis, however, something akin to the missing center of the chiasm when it has only an oppositional structure. Something must hold it together beyond merely the distinction between the two bodies, just as Christ is one person with two natures. Kantorowicz describes some of the historical mechanics of monarchy admirably but misses some of the real point of the main question: Why has monarchy been the historical, traditional “go-to” form of government?

This question Jean Hani gets at more directly in Sacred Royalty: From the Pharaoh to the Most Christian King. Hani understands that the modern man has no real understanding of monarchy. Some might even favor monarchy, but see it only as a convenient way to concentrate power, such as Adolphe Thiers, who commented in 1871 that, “the monarchy is at root a republic, a republic with a hereditary president.” Others perhaps might wish to say more, and allow that kingship has roots in nature, or in fatherhood. The philosophy Denis Diderot notes, however, that “nature gives no one the right to rule others,” and that the power of paternity recedes as the children grow up. Diderot’s implication, of course, was that France, and the world, had reached such an age.

Hani concedes that any genuine idea of monarchy must have roots beyond efficiency, practicality, and hereditary. It must be, “a paternity raised to the second power, sacred by nature, but whose sacredness is conferred by means of rites”–that is, by what is above.

Any full unpacking of Hani’s work exceeds my capacity here. What I found most illuminating, however, is that Hani discovers the secret to kingship through the mystery of chiasm, though he never sought to attempt any such thing (as far as I know).

First, Hani notes that mankind, in Jewish, Christian, Chinese, and other religious traditions, occupies a central place in the cosmos, one that lies at the midpoint between heaven and earth. “True Man,” he states, “is a synthesis of the Universe,” an idea echoed in St. Maximos, among others. As one Chinese sage put it,

The square pertains to Earth, and the circle pertains to Heaven.  Heaven is a circle, and Earth is a square.

Zhou Bi Suan

As the Taoist Change-Tzu stated,

The emperor concentrates on non-action, which is the Way of Heaven . . . . The ancient rulers abstained from acting on their own, allowing Heaven to govern through them . . . . At the summit of the Universe, the Principle unites Heaven and Earth, which transmits its influence to all beings, and which, entering the world of men, becomes good government.

But this “heaven” must touch earth to receive body and enactment in the world. Hani includes several pictures of the layout of ancient cities which symbolically represent this in their circular design, first with ancient Mansura:

and with the Viking fortress of Trelleborg:

and Firuzabad:

and Darabgerd:

This “squaring the circle” motif (with the earth upon which the city rests being the “square”) brings Heaven to Earth, in a sense. Even the Assyrians, depicting something as prosaic as a military camp, understood this.

What surrounded the king had this same pattern, such as the chariots of China and yes, also Assyria (not noted as a civilization that always appreciated the finer things):

The key element here is the square bottom and circular top–Earth connecting with Heaven:

For China, at least, Hani shows how this all comes together even in their language, writing,

But the most profound symbolism of the imperial residence was the central edifice, the Ming-tang, or “Temple of Light . . .   this building had a square base and a round roof; the same structure governed the chariot of the emperor . . . . Thus, dress, chariot, and palace, by their fundamental structure, analogous to the character “wang,” expressed the nature of the sovereign as incarnating the function of “True Man,” or “Transcendent Man,” fixed in the “Invariable Middle” (symbolized by the central cross of the character “wang”) and ultimately identified with the Axis of the World.

Here is the Chinese character for “king.”*

This brings us back to the five-fold chiasm.

Cormac Jones writes,

Have you ever considered it odd that Man, . . . is not given his own day on which to be made? He rather shares the sixth day with all the beasts of the field and creeping things of the earth. . . . what this grouping seems to suggest is that–not only are humans of like essence with the animals according to their bodies, symmetrical to the [angels] according to their spirits–but also the featured creation of the sixth day is specifically the five senses, which men and animals share alike. First you have all material creation made in a symbolic five days, then you have the five senses which circumscribe them by their powers of perception made on the sixth day.

And St. Maximos writes,

Manifold is the relation between intellects and what they perceive and between the senses and what they experience. . . . So it is in two parts divided between these things, and it draws these things through their own parts into itself in unity.

Here we have our window through which to understand kingship, at least in the ancient and medieval world. We as humans must square the circle in some place, and since, (as St. Maximos and others have stated) man is a macrocosmos, it must come to a point not in some place, but first in the Man by nature, and then in a man through grace. Other cultures intuited many important aspects of this truth, as we see above. Christianity’s crucial, seminal contribution is to put this power of Heaven and Earth on a cross, to fix our five fold nature into both sorrow and joy. It is one of the paradoxes of the Faith that the way Up involves going down.


*The Chinese Lo Shu number square, rooted in the origin myth of 9 rivers, 9 mountains, and the 9 provinces of China looks like

and not coincidentally, has the number 5 in the middle as the midpoint of 9, as what holds together the four cardinal directions. This surely has something to do with the designation of China as the “Middle Kingdom.”