‘By being is understood that which divides into Four Faculties’
The Italian one euro coin, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of ‘Vitruvian Man’.
The constitution of the human being, that Yeats outlines in A Vision, is a complex intersection of a number of different elements. It is an esoteric system, based upon the idea of different levels or planes of being, which interact with each other to a greater or lesser extent. Fundamental to the picture is the doctrine of reincarnation, so that certain core elements are retained from one life to the next, while others are shed at death or during the period between lives.
In essence, there are three constituents that need to be taken into account: the four Faculties, the four Principles, and the Daimon. The Faculties form the substructure of the personality, the bias of the soul in action. The Principles are the inner spiritual part of the human being, which direct the person’s spiritual development over many lives and which shape the Faculties in each individual incarnation. The Daimon is slightly different: it can be seen as our self, reimagined as our opposite. In other words, it comprises the same Faculties and Principles but with an opposite emphasis, so that what is unconscious in our being is conscious in the Daimon’s and vice versa. Sometimes Yeats seems to treat the Daimon as a separate being, and he probably remained uncertain about its nature until the end. In a draft, Yeats wrote that: ‘Though for the purposes of exposition we shall separate daimon & man & give to man a different symbol, they are one continuous
It is dangerous to try to find ‘equivalents’ between Yeats’s System and other similar systems, because the equivalences are very inexact and, if we try to fit Yeats’s categories into those of another one, it can distort our understanding of Yeats’s elements. The closest equivalents are in the analysis of the ‘spiritual’ being, with the four Principles showing some relationship to the anatomies Theosophy and traditional Indian philosophy. Some people have found parallels between the temperamental elements of the four Faculties and their possible dispositions and the psychological categories of C. G. Jung: these comparisons can be very fruitful, but are far from exact. The Yeatsian Daimon was a concept that he had formulated in Per Amica Silentia Lunae before any of the System of A Vision began to emerge. In its earlier forms, therefore, it is closer to its traditional antecedents, but as the System began to emerge and to become increasingly complex, the Daimon is moved slightly into the shadows, while remaining very important in Yeats’s conception.
Sun and Moon
In traditional symbolism the Sun is usually identified with the spirit or self and the Moon with the soul or psyche, and in the Yeatses’ scheme the more spiritual elements of being are Solar and the more psychic elements are Lunar (see the Tinctures). If being is divided into two, we have the spirit in the Solar Principles and the psyche in the Lunar Faculties. Each of these 'halves', however, can then be divided into Solar and Lunar, so that there are Solar and Lunar versions of the Principles and Solar and Lunar versions of the Faculties: the Solar Principles represent the core that persists from life to life, and the Lunar Principles the spiritual qualities that change between lives; the Solar Faculties represent the objective elements of the psyche and the Lunar Faculties the subjective elements. The division is then taken one stage further into pairs so that we have the Four Principles and Faculties, with the more static half of the pair the Solar and the moving half of the pair the Lunar.
Incarnate life is intrinsically Lunar, so that when it comes to the Daimon, the Daimon is Solar to our Lunar while we are incarnate. Since we humans keep descending again into Lunar incarnation, while the Daimonic part of our selves remains excarnate, this duality almost becomes absolute. However, in each of the pairs shown in the final row above, the human’s static or target Faculty (Solar) is the Daimon’s moving or appetent Faculty (Lunar) (e.g. human’s Mask is Daimon’s Will) and vice versa, so that each half of the human-Daimon continuum is simultaneously Solar and Lunar with respect to the other.
The Wheel of the Phases
Each of the Faculties can be expressed in a variety of ways along the spectrum of Solar-spiritual-objectivity and Lunar-psychic-subjectivity. However, the positions are strictly determined by an internal symmetry, and once we know the position of any one of the Faculties, we can assign the others immediately. In practice, the Will, the most Lunar of the Faculties, is the one that is referred to, so that when Yeats writes of a person as being in Phase 6, this refers to the position of their Will. Go to the page on the Faculties for further details.
In the Lunar dimension of the Faculties, Solar and Lunar are given special names, the two Tinctures, which are the Solar primary and the Lunar antithetical.
The Faculties do not form the more superficial, individual layers of personality or character, since the Yeatses were strong believers in astrology and saw the horoscope as providing the outward personality. The Faculties are rather more subterranean, informing the underlying psyche and the bias of the soul’s quest in life. The Faculties dominate during our life in the body, directing action, while the Principles are present but usually submerged in the unconscious, emerging for most people only in dreams. The human being can be compared to an island of which the Faculties are the visible part that rises from the waves and the Principles are the unseen base that lies beneath the sea. At death the island disappears, returning to the waves, and during the after-life two of the Principles are also removed, so that only the core remains.
This core of being is made of a dual Solar essence, Spirit and Celestial Body, the active part and the static part respectively. Once incarnations are finished, these will give way to what is called the Ghostly Self, but as long as we are in incarnation — and Yeats envisages a long, cyclical process — the starting-point of being is this Solar pair. Beyond the mid-point of the after-life period, the process of (re-)construction of the human being begins. The first stage is the (re-)formation of the absent Principles, the Passionate Body and then the Husk, which underlies the physical being, which form the Lunar pair of Principles.
At birth the new Faculties emerge. Each Principle informs the formation of one Faculty and, Yeats compares the Faculties to a distorted reflection of the Principles into the world of manifestation:
Yeats writes that the ‘Principles are the Faculties transferred, as it were, from a concave to a convex mirror, or vice versa’ (AV B 187), and the analogy is exact, since a convex mirror spreads the reflected image while a concave mirror focuses and reverses it: generally the Faculties are more distinct, more separated from each other than the Principles and, though there is far less of a hierarchy among the Faculties, the ordering of the Principles reverses that of the corresponding Faculties. Will is the most important of the Faculties, and is essentially the will to live, while Spirit is the most important of the Principles, and is essential spiritual comprehension.
The Faculties can also be seen as coming not just from the Principles but also from the Daimon:
Within the System the goal of life is to attain as complete an experience of what is available as possible (see Central Propositions below). During the after-life the soul should then explore the experience gained to the maximum, seeking out causes, re-imagining motives and actions and seeking to exhaust all the material offered by this life. In a given incarnation the nature of the goal in life is determined first and foremost by whether it falls in the objective or subjective part of the cycle. The position of the Will determines whether a soul is in an antithetical (subjective, Lunar) or a primary (objective, Solar) incarnation, and the soul’s ‘true’ path is different in these two halves of the Wheel.
Effectively, therefore, the being’s aim in:
Neither of these options is more valid than the other, but if the being tries to get real in an antithetical Phase or to follow its dream in a primary Phase, Yeats’s System sees this as being ‘out of phase’, and doomed to frustration and disappointment, see True and False Faculties.
Since the progress around the Wheel of Incarnations is more or less predetermined, and we should expect to go round the Wheel a dozen times, we will all sooner or later have gone through many variations of both of these movements. This fundamental split emphasises why the two transitional Phases, 8 and 22, are so difficult: firstly, neither Tincture is predominant and so the being’s aim is far less clear and, secondly, having gone through a series of incarnations where the aim has been the same the soul is being forced to shift its emphasis radically.
For a limited number of people, a greater perfection is attainable. This is made possible when the Faculties are well separated from each other and therefore relatively balanced, so that Yeats refers to Phase 12 as “a phase of immense energy because the Four Faculties are equidistant” (AV B 127). A form of integration into selfhood is possible and “the self so sought is that Unity of Being compared by Dante in the Convito to that of ‘a perfectly proportioned human body’” (AV B 82). It is implied that this is the ideal for all people, but this form of perfection is only truly attainable in Phases 16, 17 and 18, while the perfection of Self-Sacrifice is attainable at Phases 2, 3 and 4, that of Self-knowledge at Phase 13 and that of Sanctity at Phase 27 (AV B 100). The “Four Perfections” are centred on a single grouping of the Phases, 3-13-17-27 (for the groupings, see the Wheel), as are the “Four Types of Wisdom”, which all occur within the disposition 4-12-18-26, the Wisdoms of Desire, Intellect, Heart and Knowledge respectively. (It is clear from looking at the diagram that the Perfections and Wisdoms are also associated with the Opening and Closing of the Tinctures.)
The nature of the perfections in general is never really explored, nor their spiritual or psychic benefits, in keeping with Yeats’s avoidance of teleology or advice about the ethical implications of the System for human behaviour. Unity of Being receives considerable attention but little analysis and Sanctity is treated scantly under the description of Phase 27. Self-sacrifice is not explained to except to say that “it will be obvious for instance that self-sacrifice must be the typical virtue of phases where instinct or race is predominant, and especially in those three phases that come before reflection” (AV B 95), while the “Self-knowledge” attainable at Phase 13 is described as “a possible complete intellectual unity, Unity of Being apprehended through the images of the mind” and the possibility of bringing to the level of “perfection that in the antithetical life which corresponds to sanctity in the primary: not self-denial but expression for expression’s sake” ( 130).
For further exploration of these themes, see the essay "The Is and the Ought, the Knower and the Known: An Analysis of the Four Faculties in Yeats's System," by Rory Ryan in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.
Last revised: 08/06/05