The word enneagram comes from two Greek words: ennea = nine, and gramma = line or scratch. Gramma is a derivative of the verb grapho, whose original meaning was scratch or engrave or etch. Since a lot of the earliest Greek writing was scratched onto tablets of wax or stone or wood or clay, eventually grapho came to mean write and gramma came to mean writing. In English, gramma is the root from which we derive the word grammar. And it is grammar, along with its partner, rhetoric, as I have come to understand them, which reminds me of the enneagram.
My thoughts about grammar go back in part to my junior year of university, when I took Classical Greek and Latin in the same year. Taking the two together meant I had not two but three languages to compare with each other, and that gave me a wonderful view of how the three functioned, where they were similar, where they were dissimilar. It seemed to me then (and still seems to me now) that Latin was a like a great Gothic cathedral, carefully structured with every course of stone in its proper place to support the soaring arches and lofty roof. Greek was far more flexible, in grammatical construction and vocabulary, and reminded me of the coastline of an ocean, where the tides pull the sea in and out of pools and grottoes and beaches, each one filled with its own sort of life and being. As I write this, I find myself asking “What about English?” And in some ways English – being my first language – is the universe itself, in which both cathedral and coastline have their place, for without my knowledge of English I would have no milieu in which to place the other languages. But then I ask myself “What of English as a language to itself, rather than a foundation for other languages?” And what comes to mind is a river – more flexible by far than the Gothic cathedral that is Latin, but calmer, more sedate, far more predictable than the moving, changing, unbounded ocean-shore that is classical Greek. That’s the first piece.
The second piece came more than 20 years later, when I taught Greek grammar and literature at the university level for three years.
I had spent the intervening years translating Latin and Greek for my classes and my dissertation. It was an intriguing, often confusing, sometimes difficult, frequently joyous process. It was always a laborious task of figuring out the meaning of the words, then figuring out the grammar of the sentences, then putting the two together in a translation. During my first year of teaching, it came to me that I was doing it the wrong way round. Instead of beginning with what the individual words meant, I began to look at how each functioned within the sentence – in other words, I began to sort out the grammatical structure first, then slot in the meaning of the individual words.
I don’t know if you’ve ever studied ancient Greek or Latin. In case you haven’t, a word about how different languages express function. In English, function is most frequently determined by the position of the word in a sentence. “The dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog.” While “dog” and “man” are the same words and have the same shape/spelling in each sentence, their different positions give them different functions – subject/object, object/subject. In Greek and Latin, the changing shape/spelling of each word (in technical terms, the morphology) is what determines its function, rather than the position. If you use the object form of the word “man” and the subject form of the word “dog,” you can have a sentence where “man” comes before the verb and “dog” comes after the verb, but it still means “the dog bit the man.”)
So – I began to look for these grammatical clues to tell me how each word functioned in the sentence: subject, object, verb, modifier, etc.; the more I did this, the more I found that instead of translating the Greek or Latin, I was actually reading it. It was wonderful!
At the same time that I was learning (and teaching) how to read the ancient languages, I learned about rhetoric from a colleague who had studied it extensively in the modern as well as the ancient world. The standard definition of rhetoric is “the art of discourse” or “the art of persuasion.” While I don’t disagree with that understanding of rhetoric, I would expand it to mean “the art of language.” While grammar tells us how language does work, rhetoric takes us further, to how language can work. While most of us (I think) think of style as something special that only “good writers” make use of, the fact is that every sentence written in any language has style. It may be an elaborate style. It may be a simple style. It may be a good style. It may be a bad style. But every sentence has a style. Rhetoric is the art that tells us both how to recognize and how to manipulate the style in which we speak or write. As I learned from my colleague and taught my students to read the languages instead of translating them, I became ever more entranced with the myriad ways we humans have of expressing ourselves in different languages and different styles.
When I heard you speaking about the enneagram, I was reminded of my experience with language.
In language, the individual words have definitions in and of themselves, but depend on grammatical structure to give them meaning in context. “The dog bit the man” means one thing, “the man bit the dog” means something else, and “the the bit dog man” doesn’t mean anything. Grammar provides a web, a network, a framework, invisible to most people (who simply take it for granted), that allows for a meaning beyond the strict definition of each word. The application of rhetoric takes that framework further beyond the meaning of each word by allowing style to inform the simple sentence. “It was the man who was bitten by the dog” means the same thing as “the dog bit the man” but provides nuance and emphasis which the simple sentence does not.
Our lives on this earth are made up of individual events – big ones: birth, death, conversion, rites of passage; and small ones: taking a shower, eating a meal, grocery shopping, tea with a friend. The events are strung together by the invisible network we call “time” – chronos time—but as we look back and reflect, we can see other connections which make for deeper meaning. Perhaps grocery shopping reminds of the meal we had at a funeral, which leads to conversation over tea with a friend, which brings us to a sense of new birth which is conversion.
The enneagram seems to me to function as a combination of grammar book and rhetorical study. The definition involved in each word or event is innate, provides meaning, is real. But to express and understand the meaning requires the equivalent of a grammar book to bring to consciousness the invisible network which gives the contextual meaning, and a rhetorical handbook which allows us not only to understand our lives but to live them more fully, more healthily, more consciously – to find our true selves and to live always toward God. This is what the enneagram can do, in the right hands.