The Canon

Excerpts, from the 1897 Volume

William Stirling

Spring, 2022


Science has no marvels; every so-called discovery heralded as marvelous (for men of science understand the power of bold advertisement to the full as well as scientists in clog-dancing, in hair dressing, and tightrope walking), is not a marvel in the true meaning of the word.

The Rontgen rays, the microphone, the phonograph, are all as simple in themselves as is the property of amber rubbed to take up straws. From the beginning there have been Rontgen rays, and the principles of the microphone and phonograph are coeval with the world. The wonder lies not in the discovery (so-called), but in the fact that they have remained so long unknown. The real mystery of mysteries is the mind of man. Why, with a pen or brush, one man sits down and makes a masterpiece, and yet another, with the selfsame instruments and opportunities turns out a daub or botch, is twenty times more curious than all the musings of the mystics, works of the Rosicrucians, or the mechanical contrivances which seem to-day so fine, and which our children will disdain as clumsy. The conquests of the mind never grow stale, let he who doubts it read a page of Plato and compare it with some a la mode philosopher. 

I take it that one of the objects the author of this work is to sustain, that in astronomy, in mathematics, and in certain other branches of learning, the ancients knew a good deal more than modern men of science care to admit. 

Knowledge to-day is not diffused, as writers in newspapers, makers of almanacks, members of school-boards, and worthy men who see the means but cannot grasp the fullness of achievement, are never tired of stating, but on the contrary, goes almost contraband. The fact that all can read and write, cypher and scan the columns of a newspaper, can tell the latitude (the longitude more rarely) of Jella Coffee, can prattle innocently of literature, art, spiritualism, and chemistry, can make their pertinent remarks upon theosophy, discuss religion, say a word in season on lithotomy, and generally conmport themselves as if their minds were fashioned after the pattern of a kaleidoscope, does not go far to prove the claim of wide extended knowledge.

When all write books and few have time to read, when thought grows rare and talking never ends, a serious book in which a man has put the labour of his life needs some apology for its appearance. Deal with sex problems (pruriently, of course), be mystical, moral, or immoral, flippant, or best of all be dull, success is sure. Still, in an age of symbolism, for everything we see is but a symbol, as kings, queens, dukes, lords, princes, barons, and sandwichmen, it must perforce be interesting to some to read of why the chief symbol of our present faith came to be held in veneration. 

In modern times we use a word, merely to express a thing, and only rarely concern ourselves with the exact value that the word may have. This may account to some extent for the loose style of many English writers, but to examine into that would be quite foreign to my purpose. Certain it is that in the ancient world, words and even letters all had their value apart from what we, now-a-days call meaning. Thus it is that oriental nations, and especially the Jews and Arabs, attach to their particular alphabets not merely a divine origin (for I suppose our alphabet is just as divine as theirs), but a particular sense of sanctity. No one supposes if a better alphabet than we now employ were to be found that we should still adhere from superstitious motives to our own. In the ancient world, apart from letters, every ceremony, each rite, and all the arts and sciences had some peculiar canon which was supposed to govern them. If, in his researches, the author has brought to light some canon which may enlighten architects, and so redeem us from the outrages that our builders heap upon us, if he can do even a little to stay the hands of Deans and Chapters from destroying buildings which, by the folly of a nation, have been committed to their care (like sheep to wolves), or put a stop to the restorer, that arch-fiend, who in consuming thirst for unity tears down a fine Renaissance door-way in a Gothic church, and puts up in its stead what he thinks is Gothic, his labour will not have been lost. Could he redeem us from Victorian Queen-Anne—but mitigate the horrors of plate-glass, set bounds to all the Gothics, ranging from Strangulated, through the degrees of Congregational and Convulsional down to Ebenezaresque, could he but find a style in which our builders could express their thoughts, and help them build for us, our churches, houses, theatres, and bridges, without adhering slavishly to bygone styles, the twelve shillings which I understand his volume is to cost will be well spent. 

Music and literature, with painting, surgery, and economics, with boxing, fencing, and others of the liberal arts, all have a style fit and peculiar to the times, but architecture yet remains a blot and a disgrace to those who live by it, and to all those who use the edifices which it makes, and pay the maker’s bills. 

But leaving architects bemired in stucco and happy in their “co-operation with the present system,” let us return to the folly of the ancients. … The writer of this work most plainly sets it forth, and, in so doing, connects conclusively our symbolism with that which seems inherent in mankind, and gently puts aside all our pretensions to the possession of a faith revealed to us alone. 

Into these mysteries I shrink from entering, but watch him boldly walk among the Canon Laws which govern Architecture, Music, Religion, and other things, the laws of which I take on trust. Unorthodox, even in his unorthodoxy, he is sufficiently un-English to be logical and not to shirk, after the English fashion, the just conclusions towards which his reasoning leads. ...


The failure of all efforts in modern times to discover what constituted the ancient canon of the arts, has made this question one of the most hopeless puzzles which antiquity presents. It is discouraging in the extreme to approach the subject at all. The absence at all of explicit information from the ancients themselves, combined with the complete ignorance of modern authorities, is sufficient to make one hesitate to lay before the reader any proposition, however plausible, on this obscure subject. It is hoped, however, that the investigation of what appears to be a clue to the method practiced by the old architects in building the temples, may prove of some assistance in elucidating the principles, which were the common groundwork of the arts and sciences in the past. For it would appear, that there was an established canonical law underlying the practice of building as well as all other arts. 

In a general way this has been felt by all competent students of antiquity; and many traces of such an uniformity have been pointed out, but as the root of everything in the old world was primarily centered in religion, it is to the ancient theology, that we must look for the foundation and basis of the old canon.

The priests were practically the masters of the old world. Everything and everybody was subservient to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and no work could be undertaken without its authority. That the priests were legitimately entitled to regulate the building of the temples of the gods, nobody will deny. And that they did exercise this control is beyond dispute. ...


It is these secrets of the old priests, carefully guarded by them, and only communicated to the authorized builders of the temples that we propose to treat in the following pages, and we shall endeavor to show that these secrets, comprising the esoteric doctrine of religion, have been transmitted in unbroken continuity, at least from the building of the Great Pyramid, down to recent times. It is, of course, far beyond the scope of this small work, limited to a single object of inquiry, to enter into a historical examination of the evidences of this continuity of idea, and since there are already in existence books dealing with this special investigation, it is superfluous to undertake it. It is only necessary to accept the testimony of the old Greek historians, who emphatically assert, that the essential doctrines of the Greek religion were imported to Greece from Egypt. We know that all modern civilization in Europe is of Greek origin.

Just as Pythagoras and Plato, and other Greek philosophers visited Egypt to study the religion and sciences of that country, so every educated man of a subsequent age studied the religion and philosophy of Greece with the same object, namely, to perfect themselves in that knowledge, of which the Greeks were known to have been the recipients. To us the Egyptians are only a step further off; but fundamentally the doctrines which we are now investigating were the same both in Greece and Egypt. How much, the original religion and philosophy of the Egyptians may have been improved by filtering through the refinement of Greece, must be decided when Egyptologists come to have a deeper knowledge of Egyptian things, than they have at present. But whatever changes may have been added by Greeks and Christians to the original Egyptian theology, it is insisted, that the central mysteries were accepted by all priests and philosophers, as the only possible basis for religion. And more than that (for we must not always be content with a sensible reason for anything in human affairs) the absolute conservatism, always observed in religious matters, would scarcely admit that any received doctrine, once established, should be removed. ...


The oldest use of numbers as symbols of an esoteric doctrine is to be found in Egypt, from whence it was derived by the Greeks, and transmitted by them to the modern world. Although we have, unfortunately, no direct evidence of how the mysterious people of Egypt actually made use of their numbers, it would appear that their numerical system formed a part of the dogma in those laws, referred to by Plato as having been ten thousand years old, and was perpetuated, as one of the bases of religion and art by all subsequent peoples. The words of Plato are:

“Long ago they appeared to recognize the very principle of which we are now speaking—that their young citizens must be habituated to forms and strains of virtue. These they fixed, and exhibited patterns of them in their temples; and no painter or artist is allowed to innovate upon them, or to leave the traditional forms, or invent new ones. To this day no alteration is allowed, either in those arts or in music, at all. And you will find that their works of art are painted or moulded in the same forms that they had ten thousand tears ago (This is literally true, and no exaggeration), their ancient paintings and sculptures are not a whit better or worse than the work of to-day, but are made with just the same skill.” ...


Theology in its various forms, has always been the epitome of art, and constituted the law for its guidance. From the times of ancient Egypt this law has been a sacred arcanum, only communicated by symbols and parables, the making of which, in the ancient world, constituted the most important form of literary art; it therefore required for its exposition a priestly caste, trained in its use, and the guilds of initiated artists, which existed throughout the world till comparatively recent times, were instructed in it. Now-a-days, all this is changed. Theology has dropped her secrets; her symbols have become meaningless ornaments, and her parables are no longer understood. The artist in service of the Church no longer represents her mysteries in metaphorical shapes, and the priests have as little skill in the old art of myth-making, as they have in interpreting the Scriptures. 

Few people have an adequate appreciation of this lost principle—the art, that is, of working symbolically. To us who have now nothing to conceal, such a practice has naturally gone out of fashion, and the symbol, as a means of concealing rather more than it was intended to explain, has become gradually obsolete. We still write or paint symbolically, but only to make that, which is obscure more plain. In the hands of the old priest, or artist, on the contrary, the symbol was a veil for concealment, beautiful or grotesque, as the case might be. A myth or parable, in their hands subtly conveyed a hidden truth, by means of a more or less obvious fiction; but it has come to pass, that the crude and childish lie on its surface is ignorantly believed for the whole truth, instead of being recognized, as the mere clue to its inner meaning. All theology is composed in this way, and her two-fold utterances must be read with a double mind. ...


When everything was mystical and metaphorical, it was only natural that numbers should have been brought to the service of Art. Geometry also provided a symbolic code, which may be someday understood. These geometrical symbols enabled the mathematicians to import the secret mysteries into their works and also gave to the builders a means of applying a numerical system to the temples, which as Plato says, exhibited the pattern of the laws in Egypt. ...


Philosophy must have been equally dependent upon some system of geometry, for Plato wrote over the door of his academy 


and in the Republic, he says, “You must in the utmost possible manner direct the citizens of your beautiful city on no account to fail to apply themselves to geometry.” From this it may be concluded that Plato meant to inform us, that no one could understand his philosophy without knowledge of the geometrical basis of it, since geometry contained the fundamental secret of all the ancient science. ...