S. J. Yuan


The Book of John


The One and the Many


If you want to possess all,

you must desire nothing.

If you want to become all,

you must desire to be nothing.
If you want to know all,
you must desire to know nothing.

For if you desire to possess

anything, you cannot possess

God as your only treasure.
            —St. John of the Cross.


In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with John and the Word was John and John was the Word. This was John the First. He was the First First. John the First was followed by John the Second who was the First Second and the Second First.

John the First and John the Second, being the only two beings in existence, sat in two lawn chairs side by side, drinking cocktails.

“Hello,” said John. “I am John. Who are you?”

“Why, I am John as well,” John said.

“How is that possible?“ John said. “I am John. We can't both be John.”

“Why not?” said John.

“Because we are two,” said John, stabbing his finger at the other John. He was feeling rather irritable, having just come into being and all, and being forced to converse with someone so thick.

“Because if we are both John,” he continued, “and if we were both the same, then we would be both like and unlike. Yet this is impossible, for neither can a being be both like and unlike, nor the unlike like, for then it should be both one and many at the same time.”

“Ah,” said John, and he took the straw into his mouth and drank contemplatively. “So essentially, you affirm unity and deny plurality. You claim that All is One and that there is no many.”

“Yes,” said John, nodding furiously.

“I see,” said John, and paused and began to fiddle with his fingers. He seemed to John to find his nails fascinating for some reason. He began to bite them.

“Let's have it,” John said, annoyed with his fidgeting.


“You're thinking something. You have an objection. You wish to spar. Out with it.”

“Nothing, my dear John, could be further from my mind.”

“Oh come on, John. This is John you're talking to. I've known you ever since you came into being.”

“Right then,” said John, setting his drink aside. He leaned forward in his lawn chair, his eyes alert. “It's just that it seems to me …”


“… that it would be not impossible …”

“Go on.”

“… which is to say that it would be possible …”


“… that it would be possible that it were possible …”


“… that perhaps, maybe, possibly, we could say, hypothetically, as a proposition taken for discussion, for the sake of argument …”


“John!” John exclaimed. “I'm surprised at you. Since the beginning of time you've never spoken to me in that tone of voice before.”

“I apologize,” John said. “Please continue.”

“I understand", said John, “and quite accept your account. But tell me, do you not further think that there is an idea of likeness in itself, and another idea of unlikeness, which is the opposite of likeness, and that in these two, you and I and all other things to which we apply the term many participate—things which participate in likeness become in that degree and manner like; and so far as they participate in unlikeness become in that degree unlike, or both like and unlike in the degree in which they participate in both? And may not all things partake of both opposites, and be both like and unlike, by reason of this participation? Where is the wonder? Now if a person could prove the absolute like to become unlike, or the absolute unlike to become like, that, in my opinion, would indeed be a wonder; but there is nothing extraordinary, John, in showing that the things which only partake of likeness and unlikeness experience both. Nor, again, if a person were to show that all is one by partaking of one, and at the same time many by partaking of many, would that be very astonishing. But if he were to show me that the absolute one was many, or the absolute many one, I should be truly amazed. And so of all the res is: I should be surprised to hear that the natures or ideas themselves had these opposite qualities; but not if a person wanted to prove of me that I was many and also one. When he wanted to show that I was many he would say that I have a right and a left side, and a front and a back, and an upper and a lower half, for I cannot deny that I partake of multitude; when, on the other hand, he wants to prove that I am one, he will say, that we who are here assembled are two, and that I am one and partake of the one. In both instances he proves his case. So again, if a person shows that such things as wood, stones, and the like, being many are also one, we admit that he shows the coexistence the one and many, but he does not show that the many are one or the one many; he is uttering not a paradox but a truism. If however, as I just now suggested, some one were to abstract simple notions of like, unlike, one, many, rest, motion, and similar ideas, and then to show that these admit of admixture and separation in themselves, I should be very much astonished. This part of the argument appears to be treated by you, John, in a very spirited manner; but, as I was saying, I should be far more amazed if any one found in the ideas themselves which are apprehended by reason, the same puzzle and entanglement which you have shown to exist in visible objects. Therefore, in conclusion, I conclude, I argue, expostulate, claim, prove, assert, that we are both John because we partake of the idea of Johnness and so are both like and unlike.”

“What?” John said, astonished.

“I do not wish to repeat myself,” John said curtly, folding his arms over his chest and looking down his nose at his companion.

“Don't take that supercilious tone with me, John.”

“Ahhh. But I've got you!”

“Who do you think you are? Where do you get off speaking to me like that? After all, I’m older than you. I came first.”

“No you didn’t, and I’m John the First and YOU are John the Second.”

“Drivel! I am clearly the First.”

“No you weren’t.”

“Yes I was.”

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter because my position is the right one.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Yes it is.”

On the two continued in this vein. After many hours, both grew tired and simply in their lawn chairs not looking at or speaking to each other. When the silence at last became unbearable, John looked over at John. He knew that at some point he would have to resume conversing with his companion, but when he looked over at John he saw that John was studying his fingernails again, as if he found his fingernails more interesting than him, he became deeply irritated. The very nerve of it! And on top of that, John having the nerve to think that he was smarter than John and not respecting him even though he was the Eldest! It was really too much to bear.

“John,” he said.

“Yeessss?” John said languidly.

"I’ve been thinking about what you said.”


“I want to preface my comments,” John said, looking to be tactful, “that I will chalk up your uncivil behavior to immaturity, and that being older and wiser, it is my responsibility …”

“Pfffff,” John said.

“… MY responsibility to overlook this and heal this rift. Firstly, I would like to investigate your argument further.”

“Very well,” John said.

“I should like to know whether you mean that there are certain ideas of which all other things partake, and from which they derive their names; that similars, for example, become similar, because they partake of similarity; and great things become great, because they partake of greatness; and that just and beautiful things become just and beautiful, because they partake of justice and beauty? And that we are both John because we both partake of the idea of Johnness.”

“Yes, certainly,” said John, “that is my meaning.”

“Then each individual partakes either of the whole of the idea or else of a part of the idea? Can there be any other mode of participation?”

“There cannot be,” he said.

“Then do you think that the whole idea is one, and yet, being one, is in each one of the many?”

“Why not, John?” said John.

“Because one and the same thing will exist as a whole at the same time in many separate individuals, and will therefore be in a state of separation from itself.“

“Nay,” objected John, “but the idea may be like the day which is one and the same in many places at once, and yet continuous with itself; in this way each idea may be one; and the same in all at the same time.”

And with that, the sun rose and the day was separated from the night, but the two Johns, deep in conversation, hardly noticed.

“I like your way, John, of making one in many places at once. You mean to say, that if I were to spread out a sail and cover a number of men, there would be one whole including many—is not that your meaning?”

“I think so.”

“And would you say that the whole sail includes each man, or a part of it only, and different parts different men?”

“The latter.”

“Then the ideas themselves will be divisible, and things which participate in them will have a part of them only and not the whole idea existing in each of them?”

“That seems to follow.”

“Then would you like to say that the one idea is really divisible and yet remains one?”

“Certainly not,” he said.

“Suppose that you divide absolute greatness, and that of the many great things, each one is great in virtue of a portion of greatness less than absolute greatness—is that conceivable?”


“Or will each equal thing, if possessing some small portion of equality less than absolute equality, be equal to some other thing by virtue of that portion only?”


“Or suppose one of us to have a portion of smallness; this is but a part of the small, and therefore the absolutely small is greater; if the absolutely small be greater, that to which the part of the small is added will be smaller and not greater than before.”

“How absurd!”

“Then in what way will all things participate in the ideas, if they are unable to participate in them either as parts or wholes?"

“Indeed," he said, "you have asked a question which is not easily answered.”

“Well,” said John, “and what do you say of another question?”

“What question?”

“I imagine that the way in which you are led to assume one idea of each kind is as follows: You see a number of great objects, and when you look at them there seems to you to be one and the same idea (or nature) in them all; hence you conceive of greatness as one.”

“Very true,” said John.

“And if you go on and allow your mind in like manner to embrace in one view the idea of greatness and of great things which are not the idea, and to compare them, will not another greatness arise, which will appear to be the source of all these?”

“It would seem so.”

“Then another idea of greatness now comes into view over and above absolute greatness, and the individuals which partake of it.”

“So …”

“So, if you and I are both John because we both partake in the idea of Johnness, and are each like this idea, then the idea John is itself John.”


“Therefore, there are three Johns. There is John the First, that is, me …”

“No, me.”

“… John the Second, um, one of us, and there is the idea of John, which is another John. Now how is it that all three of these can simultaneously be John? There must be another idea of John of which they all partake.”

And just like that, another John, John the Third, popped into existence. He was the First Third ever to be, and also the Second Second and the Third First.

“Hello,” John said.

“Where did you come from?” John said.

“I was just about to ask you that,” John the Third said.

“Excuse me,” John the First, or the Second (which was in dispute) said, “we were having a conversation.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” John the Third said, sitting down in his lawn chair which had also inexplicably come into being. “I know all about it. It seems to me to be somewhat problematic.”


“For our seating arrangements,” the new John said, sipping his cocktail, all the while twirling the little pink umbrella between his thumb and forefinger.

“How so?"

“It's just that this pattern of argument initiated by John can be continued ad infinitum. I mean, if there are three Johns, and each are John by virtue of being like the idea of John, then there are four Johns and another John after that of which they all partake.”


“And so the process has no natural end to it.”

And so, in a flash, the universe was filled with Johns, one after the other. There was a manyness of Johns, an endlessness of Johns, stretching out in all directions. Each was sitting in his lawnchair and sipping his own cocktail.

“Good gracious,” John First (or Second) said, aghast. “Look at what you’ve done!”

“What I’ve done?” John the Second (or First) said. “YOU’RE the one who did this.”

“Will you get out of here,” one of the new Johns barked at a John to his right. He had moved his elbow, knocking John’s cocktail over and making quite a mess. “I was here first. You people need to get out of here.”

“What are you talking about? I was here first!”

“It seems we have a bit of a crowding problem,” John the First (or Second) said.

“No doubt,” John the Second (or First) said.

“Look,” John said, rearing up to his full height. As everyone else was the same height as him, he thought to get up on his lawnchair for that extra edge. “I am the First John, and as the First John, I feel that I should be taking charge of...”

“You’re not the First,” came a call from nearby. “I AM!”

“NO. I AM!”


Meanwhile, two of the John had, due, no doubt, to the considerable stress of the day, finally come to blows. They stood facing each other, their lawnchairs raised over their heads, bashing each other over the head. One would strike the other and then the other would strike him, one after the other like clockwork.

“Ouch. That hurt!”

“Take that you ruffian!”

“Quit it!”

“No, you quit it!”

“What are we going to do about this?” John the First (or Second) said to his companion, calmly seat next to him. There was, by now, quite a din. The many Johns were fighting and quarrelling. Cocktail glasses were upset, lawn chairs were overturned.

“I do have one idea,” John the Second (or First) said, stroking his chin. A John flew over his head, having been picked up and thrown by one of his brothers.

“Well?” John said, unnerved by John's nonchalance. The two Johns over were wrestling the armchair next to him. He was trying and failing to ignore it.

“First," John said, "you must admit that I am indeed the First.”

“That's nonsense. Everyone can plainly see that …”

“Then forget it.”



“Please continue.”

“It's just that, it seems to me, that we need to rethink our assumptions …”

“And …”

“… for it seems to me,” John the First continued, “that the absolute many is generated by the absolute one, that the two are the same, only perceived from different perspectives. The absolute one is not consistent with itself, is not self identical, and that this is why the One explodes into the multitude.”

“But that’s nonsense,” John the Second said, “If the One is not identical with itself, it would be self-contradictory.”


“And then anything could happen, anything would happen.”


“And the universe would be …”

“… would be nothing,” John said.

And with that, all the Johns, which is to say, John the First who was the First First and John the Second who was the First Second and the Second First and John the Third who was the First Third and the Second Second and the Third First and so on and so on and so forth, and all their din and racket and hue and cry and their lawn chairs and cocktails glasses, upset and non-upset, and everything that was and is and that ever would be simply vanished.



S. J. Yuan is a writer from New Jersey. He has finished a novel and his work has appeared in Sein und Werden. He can be found online at .


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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014