Previously on Psychopomp, I ran through what I’ve learned about the history of the Enneagram. People often claim that it has ancient and mysterious origins, but my investigation of these claims demonstrated to me that this wasn’t quite true. Instead, it seems that a handful of 20th-century men created the system, then attached an ancient mystique to their teachings. In one case, this led to some rather interesting legal issues in the 2nd Circuit.
But as I said then, my investigation hit a bit of a roadblock. It wasn’t clear that all these sources were even talking about the same thing when they made their claims about the origins of the Enneagram. This meant it was hard for me to write the ancient origins off so quickly.
So, what is it, anyway?
Part Two: The Definitions
I am not the first to conclude that, essentially, the Enneagram as we know it now (a symbol marking the relationships between nine personality types of a given description) is a 20th-century innovation.
Riso and Hudson admitted as much, although their early book Personality Types (see previous post) had included its own mysterious set of Very-Old claims. Pumping the brakes on their own earlier breathless prose, they write in a later edition that “[u]nfortunately, the first edition of Personality Types was perhaps a source of the mistaken idea that there was a body of knowledge about the Enneagram which had been transmitted through an ongoing ‘oral tradition’ of some kind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Enneagram is largely a modern development.” Elsewhere, they wrote that the Enneagram is “a hybrid, a modern amalgam, from a number of ancient wisdom traditions combined with modern psychology.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19. “Various authors have speculated about its origins, and Enneagram enthusiasts have created a good deal of folklore about its history and development, but much of the information being passed around is unfortunately misleading. Many early authors, for example, attributed the entire system to Sufi masters which we now know is not the case.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19.
Wikipedia encapsulates the problem thusly:
Although the origins and history of many of the ideas and theories associated with the Enneagram of Personality are a matter of dispute, contemporary Enneagram claims are principally derived from the teachings of Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo.
Similarly, the Enneagram Institute sums it up:
The Enneagram of Personality Types is a modern synthesis of a number of ancient wisdom traditions, but the person who originally put the system together was Oscar Ichazo.
But which is it? Is it from the 20th century, or is it old? Is it a new thing made of old pieces, or an old thing with new fittings?
One problem is definitional: we have the Enneagram diagram itself, and then we have the Enneagram of Personality, which is the system that overlays nine psychological types on top of that diagram.
So what are people talking about when they make a claim about the Enneagram’s history? The personality types, or just the diagram? Or something else entirely? It’s rarely clear.
But even if we adjust our search to just an Enneagram that has personality types attached, it is unclear how far we can reasonably go back: Gurdijieff, in the early 20th century, taught that “each of us had a chief feature that was the central axis around which the delusional aspects of our personalities revolved.” Tart preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he made some personality claims, in unconventional ways: he would hold liquor-soaked evening sessions during which he would excoriate everyone as a particular kind of “idiot.” Palmer at 13-14. You can see this as him exposing people’s Enneagram type (in Gurdijieff’s own very Enneagram-8 fashion) if you want…but need you?
It’s undisputed that he taught the Enneagram diagram. See Palmer at 10. But there is no evidence that he thought of mapping his personality “chief features” onto the diagram.
Tart hedges: “Gurdijieff clearly used the Enneagram of personality in his work with his students, but, to my knowledge, did not pass the system on in any detail to his students.” Preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he used the Enneagram of Personality, but in such a subtle way that his students had no idea that they had learned it.
To which I say…hmm.
Instead of learning a personality system, Gurdijieff’s students learned “through nonverbal movement exercises that were designed to give a felt sense of the stages that different processes go through when they begin and are played out in the material world.” Palmer at 10. In fact, “There was nothing written about the Enneagrams of personality during Gurdijieff’s lifetime, and the schools that continued his teaching were inclined to view personality preoccupations as something to be set aside in the movement toward higher consciousness.” Palmer at 11.
So you see the problem: we are tempted, when looking for the Enneagram in the past, to find it in its modern form in Gurdijieff. So we look back at a man who used the diagram, who also taught some concepts about personal development, and with the benefit of hindsight, we assume that he might have also secretly or nonverbally used the other things that we associate with the Enneagram of Personality today, even though it appears that he didn’t.
Or this leads to different, wilder hedges: that the Enneagram in Gurdijieff’s time was more pure than it is now, having been tainted by the masses obtaining access to it; or that Gurdijieff definitely knew the Enneagram of Personality, but chose not to teach it because his students could not handle it. See Palmer at 12.
But isn’t it more likely that the Enneagram as we know it now was just not around yet, and that’s why there’s no evidence that Gurdijieff taught it? Isn’t that why those little bits of the early Enneagram look so bizarre to us?
We essentially have to make a choice: between the notion that the Enneagram of Personality as we know it now has existed for thousands of years, transmitted through the Babylonians and Sufis and Kabbalists and the early Christian mystics, but that its full form was kept secret; or that it is a modern invention that draws on–or resembles–older concepts. I clearly vote for the latter.
So what are those concepts it draws on?
A huge one that is largely ignored in modern Enneagram circles is esoteric numerology. After all, the diagram–and the exact placement of the types on it–is not arbitrary. See Palmer at 46. The diagram consists of a circle in which lay two separate diagrams: an equilateral triangle, and an irregular six-pointed figure.
The triangle represents the “law of three,” which is seen in many mystical traditions, and is also notable because the decimal of 1/3 is 0.33333, with a string of 3s out to infinity. This fact of numerology would have come about after the discovery of the zero, and the subsequent discovery of decimal places, in a base-ten system. On the Enneagram diagram, the triangle forms points 3, 6, and 9–all of the multiples of three.
It turns out that the irregular six-pointed figure is similar: it represents the “law of sevens,” because 1/7 also creates an infinite decimal: 0.142857. This pattern of six numbers repeats forever, never including a multiple of three. Students of the Enneagram of Personality will recognize that sequence of numbers as six of the Enneagram types arranged in order of their movements in stress: type 1 moves to type 4 in stress; 4 moves to 2; 2 to 8; and so on.
This explains the diagram, and why the nine numbers are arranged in a given order. It has to do with numerology. And on top of this numerology, some attach esoteric meaning: the law of threes is associated with the trinity, for example, and the law of seven “governs the stages of implementation of [an] event as it is played out in the physical world.” Palmer at 36. I’m not quite sure what that means, to be honest.
Some numerology goes a little further: if you do your math a little wrong, you can add .33 to .33 to .33 and get .99. That is to say, three of the decimal of 1/3 creates an infinite string of nines. Likewise, if you add .142857 to itself seven times (in other words, seven of the decimal of 1/7) creates .999999. Again, this is bad math, because 3 times 1/3 is 1, just as 7 times 1/7 is 1, but if you just add the decimals on top of each other and ignore the fact that you’re supposed to go to infinity, it looks like you get a lot of nines–which is significant in a system based on numerology about a nine-pointed figure. See Palmer at 37; Maitri at 27. Riso also does a little bad math to help us remember the 1-4-2-8-5-7 string: “1-4, or 14, doubles to 28, and that doubles to 57–or almost so.” Enneagram Transformations at 14.
I say this not to bore you to tears but instead to make the point that a big chunk of whatever the Enneagram is is numerology, which definitely goes back a little further than other chunks. And, importantly, it’s not the Enneagram of personality, is it?
You can also find connections between the nine-pointed shape in astrology and geometry, and it is clear that the Enneagram of Personality is just inherently a very different thing than all this. See https://nosmallthingpodcast.com/2019/05/27/050-the-enneagram-a-history/. There are also personality typing systems that are quite old: the four humors, the Seven Deadly Sins. There are mystical groupings of nine: the nine worlds that the Norse mythical tree Yggdrasil connects, for example. But no one now does just numerology, or just sacred geometry, or just the seven deadly sins, and calls it the Enneagram. That would be confusing at best.
At the end of the day, here’s the real history, as far as I’m concerned: a bunch of semi-related (and, in some cases, unrelated) ideas including numerology, religious transformation, psychology, astrology, esoterica, etc, floated around until Ichazo and Naranjo and later people (Riso, Hudson, Maitri, Palmer, et al) created what we now call the Enneagram of Personality in the ’70s. Searching before that for a single, intact system transmitted through the ages guarantees finding some false positives in hindsight, finding some loose resemblances and rounding them up.
Rather than finding the actual pedigree of a single idea, we’re instead identifying the universal appeal of a several separate things. Which is fine!
And the thing is, the Enneagram as we know it now is still evolving. It’s not done. Riso “discovered” the levels of health (the idea that each type contains nine levels of health, which shows how each type will look at different levels of well-being) in 1977. Wisdom of the Enneagram at 25. Riso and Hudson call it a “work in progress,” so that practitioners are “continually finding better terminology, making new discoveries, formulating more profound questions, uncovering new areas for investigation, and seeing more fertile connections with other bodies of knowledge.” Id.
For me personally, so much of what I’ve been enriched by in this system is rather new: the complexities of wings, arrows, subtypes, levels of health–none of these are attested back very far. All of the rather simple comparisons of the ancient Enneagram (such as the seven deadly sins) don’t have these complexities, because they are a different system. Even if the bones are old, you might say, the guts are new. Or something. (It’s getting late, and I’m tired).
To sum up: if you set your sights quite low, you can find a lot of things that look like bits and pieces of what we now know as the Enneagram all over time and space. You can cobble together an ancient esoteric history of the system. You will be able to gather bits of other sets of nines, or systems that generalize people based on a set of types. You will get some false positives.
I’m trying to break my own habit of wanting these false positives, wanting that charge of finding something really old as though in a brand-new archaeological dig. And even after all this rambling, I’m facing some disappointment, a kind of deflated feeling that I’m a joyless cynic, for trying to get rid of the perception that the Enneagram is ancient.
But why is that a bad thing? Why do we want the false positives? PART THREE is coming.