"There are three things…": Introducing the Numerical Apothegm

by Martha Rust

A survey of Listology posts shows that the list form is often used to convey advice or wisdom, and when it does, the list’s items are limited to a certain number, which is then featured in its title: the Ten Essentials for Hiking, for instance, or Seven Lessons from Mister Rogers. In this post, we consider an ancient list-based genre of literature that elaborates on this kind of advisory list. Famed German literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956) placed this list-based genre in the category of wisdom literature and gave it the name Zahlenspruch, or “numbered saying,” which Willard R. Trask translated as “numerical apothegm.”[1] As our examples will show, whether or not a numerical apothegm conveys wisdom, it gives a reader much to think about.[2]

As seen in the following example from the biblical book of Proverbs, the main components of a numerical apothegm are a list and an introductory line announcing the list’s topic and the number of items it contains. In addition, the introductory line may be delivered in the voice of a first-person speaker as it is here.

Three things are hard to me, and the fourth I am utterly ignorant of.

The way of an eagle in the air,

the way of a serpent upon a rock,

the way of a ship in the midst of the sea,

and the way of a man in youth. (30.18-19)[3]

In exemplifying the form, this numerical apothegm also shows its flexibility in that it features two numbers in its introductory line and goes on to enumerate two categories of things. By dividing the list’s four “things” into two categories–three physical “ways” and one abstract “way”–the apothegm asks us to compare the two. The flight of an eagle, the glide of a serpent, the buoyed passage of a ship: these are things we can see, and in seeing them know that we do not understand them. A male youth’s life path or fashion of living: these are matters to be understood from within, thus incomprehensible to elders and likely to the young person himself.

In regards to that incomprehensible thing, many translations of the Bible read “the way of a man in youth,” as alluding to the way of a man in love, which is a topic that has inspired many numerical apothegms through the ages.[4] Among them, the popular “Five Lines of Love” [Quinque Linea Amoris] reflects a long tradition of writing about the process of attracting or approaching a beloved.[5] In the “Five Lines of Love” apothegm, a lover finds success by way of a series of increasingly intimate lines of access to the beloved:

There are five lines of love, namely

sight,

address,

touch,

kiss (or smooch),

coitus.

[Quinque lineae sunt amoris, scilice

visus,

allocution

tactus,

osculum sive suavium,

coitus.[6]

In its enumeration of five distinct steps to a specific goal, this numerical apothegm would seem to provide a handy, easy-to-remember lover’s guide, for he need only remember one line for each of his five fingers. In this respect, however, the apothegm’s framing number, five, also places a strict limit on what love may be, disallowing any aims beyond the fifth or any extra stages along the way. Gone is the mystery of “the way of a man in love”; the number in this numerical apothegm teaches that the particular items in its list are all one needs to know about love.

If the “Five Lines of Love” apothegm went so far as to count out its lines–i.e. “first, sight; second, address; third, touch,” and so on–it would portend a lover who was downright calculating. But numbers, like love, work in mysterious ways. Our next numerical apothegm does count out its items, but it also creates an internal division between them, similar to that of our Proverbs apothegm. This apothegm comes from the commonplace book of Robert Reynes of Acle, which was featured in our two posts on islands (here and here):

In iii poyntis, I dar wel say, God schuld be wurchpyd ouer all thing: With ryghtwysnesse and mercy: þer be twaye, þe iiide is clennesse in levynge.In three points, I dare well say, God should be worshipped over all things: With righteousness and mercy: there are two, The third is cleanliness in living.[7]

By using the phrase “þer be twaye” to yoke together the list’s first two items, our poet and apothegm-writer creates a pause in his count, thereby allowing medieval Christian readers a moment to recall a verse from the Psalms that they recited every day in the course of Matins, their morning prayers: “Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed” (Ps. 84.11). In the light of this familiar passage, which invites a person to ponder the ways these paired-off concepts complement each other, readers encountering righteousness and mercy paired off in this apothegm might take a moment to search for the complementarity between them as well. Following this productive pause, the apothegm moves to a third point, “cleanliness in living,” which transforms all three points into an evocation of three of the beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice [righteousness]:

for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. (Matt. 5.6-8)

Did our poet change “cleanliness of heart” to “cleanliness in living” to rhyme with the “things” of his second line? We will never know, but in the context of medieval Christianity’s stress on  doing good deeds, “cleanliness in living” would serve as a sure foundation for performing acts of righteousness and mercy (Matt. 5.6-7). As for its use of a numbered list, this numerical apothegm teaches, just as the “Five Lines of Love” teaches a path to success in love, but it does so by presenting a reader with questions to contemplate, along the lines of our example from Proverbs.

Despite the apparent simplicity of numerical apothegms, pre-modern writers prove that this list-based form is variable and beguiling. From the perspective of listology, this sub-genre of literature presents a laboratory for experiments with how numbers inform lists. On the basis of the cases examined above, it would appear that, beyond stating the quantity of a list’s contents, a number has paradoxical powers in and over a list: from ordering and grouping items within a list, to expanding or contracting its governing concept. As a laboratory for experiments, numerical apothegms also inspire new creations, such as my own composition below, a play on (among other things) the word “things” in the introductory line of the example from Proverbs.

There are three -ings that I like to think upon:

A yearling, a sapling: that makes two

The third is an inkling that you like -ings too.

One more thing about -ings: the list of them can go on.

Happy Holidays from Listology!


[1] Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages ([1953] Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 510.

[2] Commonly associated with the biblical books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, the term “wisdom literature” extends also to works that offer counsel–“words of wisdom”–on personal conduct and the ways of the world. For further description and bibliography, see “Wisdom Literature,” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. Adele Berlin and Maxine Grossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). For further discussion of the genre in Proverbs chapters 30 and 31, see William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), 643-70. For many more biblical examples, see W. M. W. Roth, Numerical Sayings in the Old Testament: A Form-Critical Study (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965). For examples in Chaucer’s work, see Stephen Barney, “Chaucer’s Lists,” in The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in honor of Morton W. Bloomfield. Ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications: 1982. 189-223, at 198.

[3] Douay-Rheims translation, available at http://www.drbo.org/.

[4] The “compare translations” option at Bible Study Tools provides thirty-six translations for this line. https://www.biblestudytools.com/compare-translations/

[5] Curtius locates the apothegm’s origins in two Latin grammarians’ commentaries, one on Horace’s Carmina by second-century Pomponius Porphyrion, and one on Terence’s Eunuchus (4.2.10) by fourth-century Aelius Donatus.

[6] Text and translation from Krause, “The Quinque Lineae Amoris,” Classica et mediaevalia 65 (2014): 79. See also Curtius, European Literature, 512.

[7] Lewis Cameron, The Commonplace Book of Robert Reynes of Acle: An Edition of Tanner MS 407 (New York: Garland, 1980), 184.

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