"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]

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