In 1564, English mathematician and astrologer John Dee (1527-1607) devised a peculiar but structurally compelling alchemical figure. He called it the Monas Hieroglyphica. For Dee the Monas was the consummate blueprint for human life in the universe. It represented the entirety of being in the world in a simple collection of just four basic parts.
The circle with the dot-marked center, the Monas’s “eye,” located prominently atop the intersecting straight lines, represents the sun (Sol). Both the eye and the sun are symbolic of consciousness. As the sun literally illuminates the entire universe, opening a vast expanse of space and objects to be cognized, the human eye acts as a conduit for the mind simultaneously to project into and absorb the world of objects. Human consciousness in turn exerts itself, makes itself known, and collects information in the world of objects by means of the body. Affixed to the sun is a crescent moon (Luna). The moon is the feminine complement to the masculine sun. Together, moon and sun comprise the cosmic equivalent of what C.G. Jung called (in Mysterium Coniunctionis) the anima and animus, or the feminine ego-consciousness in men and the masculine ego-consciousness in women. The moon stays in close proximity to the sun, Dee suggested, because she yearns insatiably to be impregnated with the sun’s solar rays; her procreative capacity to take in and later bear forth (or reflect) the sun’s brilliant offspring-rays, which in turn illuminate the night sky, Dee captured in the form of the crescent—a cornucopia, or horn of plenty. United, sun and moon further represent morning and night, and thus they generate humankind’s standard measure of time, the day, according to which men and women lead productive and fecund lives.
The torso and arms of the Monas consist of two lines, with four segments, the juncture of which is the heart of the figure. This “cross” shape represents the very ground upon which the human race dwells, namely, Earth. Dee imagined that around the Earth all celestial bodies orbit and synchronize in the same way that the central organ of the human body, the heart, sits centrally in the human body and determines the operation of all other organs distal to it. Dee thus based the Monas Hieroglyphica on the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which reckoned that the Earth was at the center of the universe. It is possible, though I think unlikely, that Dee, in 1564, had not yet heard of the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, who, in 1543, produced a workable heliocentric model of space, i.e., one with the sun at the center of the solar system. That Dee intended the Monas Hieroglyphica to provide cosmic knowledge for humankind to understand their microcosmic, homologous modeling of universal entities beyond their direct perception, coupled with Dee’s deep commitment to Anglicanism, suggests that had he been aware of the Copernican model, he likely would not have been willing to accept it (or, e.g., any model that didn’t afford a centrally prominent location for God’s created human habitat, Earth). Humanity and the place in which humans live was for Dee, as for many throughout history, frequently the lodestone and cynosure for cosmic reckoning.
The converging lines of the Monas’s torso and arms represent the four cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west—throughout which the four basic elements (Elementa)—air, earth, fire, and water—pervade. Two semicircles connected by a common point, forming an m-shape, are the legs that support the body. The “m” is the zodiac sign for Aries. It designates the vital fiery energy (Ignis) that sets in motion all bodies in the universe.
Dee thought a complete understanding of the symmetry between human and cosmic bodies as shown in the Monas Hieroglyphica would revolutionize scientific enquiry and lift the veil of ignorance from all speculation about being human in the universe. According to Dee’s hieroglyph, each part of the human body has an astronomical homologue, or correspondence, with a specific part of the universal body. Each independent part contributes to the integrity of the whole body to which it belongs. A maladjusted or perfected state in one body—human or cosmic—thereby negatively or positively affects the ill/well-being of the other, homological body. Dee emblematized this micro-macrocosmic correspondence with the name he gave the hieroglyph, Monas, which is the Latin base for our English word “monad,” meaning “unit, unity, one.” Accordingly, this collection of simple symbols forming a single body is at once, to borrow Clifford Geertz’s famous classification, a model of a balanced cosmological physiology as well as a model for individual human wellbeing in the world.