“Seven Lessons from Mister Rogers”: A Listicle Review

by Martha Rust

In 2016, the word “listicle” earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it’s defined as “[a] journalistic article or other piece of writing presented wholly or partly in the form of a list.” [1] With this post we introduce a new Listology feature, the listicle review. Blog posts in this genre will reflect on listicles that display interesting features of the list form. Our inaugural listicle review takes a look at Shea Tuttle’s wonderful tribute to the beloved Fred McFeely Rogers, “Seven Lessons from Mister Rogers That Can Help Americans Be Neighbors Again,” placing it in the context of a long tradition of lists of sevens.[2]
Exemplifying the listicle genre, “Seven Lessons” announces in its title the number of items in its list and goes on to number those items in the body of the piece. Also in keeping with the listicle form, the items in Tuttle’s listicle serve as summarizing headings for short stretches of prose, allowing a reader to get the gist of the listicle by reading the list of headings. The headings in “Seven Lessons” are the following:

  1. It’s okay to feel whatever it is we feel.
  2. But our feelings aren’t an excuse for bad behavior.
  3. Other people are different from us–and just as complex as we are.
  4. It’s our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable.
  5. We can work to make a difference right where we are.
  6. It’s important to make time to care for ourselves.
  7. We are neighbors.

In choosing seven as this listicle’s governing number, Tuttle has chosen a figure with a centuries’ long reputation for heading up lists that offer guidelines for living a good life. The number was particularly favored for such didactic lists during the Middle Ages, when seven became, as Mark Hussey puts it, “the vehicle of almost the whole religious training that the laity were given or needed to assimilate.”[3] Several of the lists of seven that a medieval Christian would be expected to know resonate with Shea’s list, in particular her item number four: “It’s our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable.” A medieval lay person would have been able to count seven ways of taking such responsibility, for they would know the list of the seven corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.[4]

Why seven? And why seven for didactic lists in particular? Inspired by the lists of seven under discussion, we supply three answers to the first question and four to the second, for another list of seven (and a mini-listicle).

  1. The sheer longevity of seven’s influence. The significance of seven was likely established some 20,000 years ago when, in the course of humans’ first attempts at keeping track of time, they noticed that each phase of the moon marks the passage of seven days.[5]
  2. The sheer ubiquity of sevens in the world. From the seven stars of the Pleiades to the seven “windows” in our heads–two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth–sevens are everywhere. The Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE-50 CE) devoted fourteen chapters in his book On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses to praising the number seven, listing along the way a dizzying number of its manifestations in both terrestrial and celestial realms.[6]
  3. Seven is an elegant sum. Following Philo and Pythagorean mathematicians before him, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) finds seven a praiseworthy number because of its parts: “three is the first whole number that is odd, four the first that is even, and … seven is composed of these two” (in Pythagorean theory, one and two are principles, so three is the first real number).[7]
  4. Around seven items is all we can remember. In his classic study of short-term memory, George A. Miller identified seven (plus or minus two) as the quantity of items that humans are best able to remember.[8]
  5. Seven is the number of wisdom and light. The guidance provided by celestial sevens–the Pleiades, the Big Dipper, the moon–gave it an early association with wisdom, and with wisdom as light.[9]
  6. Seven is all–and all we need to know. According to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), seven stands for “a universality.” Augustine points to a line in Psalm 119 to explain this paradoxical quality of seven: “’Seven times a day will I praise thee’ is elsewhere expressed in a different way as, ‘I will bless the Lord at all times.’” Many religious lists of seven are set forth as exhaustive; for instance, we understand the seven deadly sins as all of the mortal sins, not just a selection of seven of them.
  7. Seven indicates completeness. God created the world in six days and declared it complete on the seventh. Comparing the six days of creation to the seventh, completing day, Philo writes “seven reveals as completed what six has produced.”[10] Considering Tuttle’s seventh item–“we are neighbors”–in the light of Philo’s assertion about the relationship between six and seven, we can see that it may also have a revelatory function. Placed at the seventh position, “we are neighbors” reveals the previous six items as the definition of a complete neighbor.

By placing this item where she does, Tuttle also reveals that by being neighbors as defined in the first six items in the list, we become connected to each other in such a way that we speak of our collective selves using the phrase “we are neighbors.” This seventh item thus reveals that the fulfillment of neighborliness is belonging to a “we.”

 

[1] OED, s.v. “listicle.”

[2] Shea Tuttle, ”Seven Lessons from Mister Rogers That Can Help Americans Be Neighbors Again,” Greater Good Magazine, 13 July 2018.

[3] Maurice Hussey, “The Petitions of the Paternoster in Medæval English Literature,” Medium Ævum 27 (1958): 8-16 (8).

[4]Seven Deadly Sins” (University of Leicester, 2001).

[5] On the early perception of the significance of seven, see Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought and Expression (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 13-20. On the paleolithic origins of astronomy, see “The Early Origins of Astronomy” in General Astronomy (Wikibooks).

[6] Philo, On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses, xxx-xliii. Ed. and trans. by F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, in Philo vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library 226 (London: William Heinemann, 1929), 73-103.

[7] Augustine, City of God against the Pagans, XI.31. Trans. R. W. Dyson, Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[8] George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” Psychological Review 63 (1956): 81-97. For a review of this study forty years after its publication, see Richard M. Shiffrin and Robert M. Nosofsky, “Seven plus or minus two: A commentary on capacity limitations, Psychological Review, 101 (1994): 357-361. Mary Carruthers discusses medieval lists of seven in connection with Miller’s study in her “Mental Images, Mental Storage, and Composition in the High Middle Ages,” Das Mittelalter 13 (2008): 67-83.

[9] For further discussion and analysis of this aspect of seven, see Philo, On the Account, 93-95.

[10] Philo, On the Special Laws (De Specialibus Legibus) II.59. Trans. F. H. Colson, in Philo VII, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937), 345.

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