Bill Long 12/22/04
Let Me Count the Ways
When you number things it shows that you have not only thought about something but that you are making a claim to understand it and be able to communicate it in an easily-learned way. Students love it when you enumerate things. They can make easy outlines, learn the points, see the illustrations and then, one would hope, be able to think for themselves.
But enumeratio/dinumeratio is not only an effective way to make an argument in a forensic context; it also has a deep resonance in love poetry and in gnomic/proverbial utterances.
Dinumeratio and the Book of Proverbs
This is not the place to go into the literary structure or ideological commitments of the Book of Proverbs. Suffice it to say that longer "hymn-like" chapters (1-9) are then followed by pithy utterances, which we normally think of as constituting the entire Book of Proverbs (10-29). The concluding two chapters are oracles or words of Agur (ch. 30) and King Lemuel (ch. 31). Some of Agur's proverbs are enumerations. I will provide two examples:
"Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a girl (30:18-19)."
Dinumeratio here is actually more suggestive and open-ended than conclusive or demonstrative. We are led to wonder about other "threes and fours" in nature as well as to try to divine why it is that the "way of a ship on the high seas" and the "way of a man with a girl" are "too wonderful." Are they "too wonderful" because they seem to "defy gravity," so to speak? Skillful dinumeratio encourages our own creative thinking.
Again, Agur gives us a dinumeratio.
"Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when glutted with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maid when she succeeds her mistress (30:21-23)."
Two are pictures of males and two of females. Two talk about new and unexpected "achievements" of people who are lower on the social scale and how the world cannot endure their behavior upon rising to the top. Two talk about filling, emptying, starvation and surfeit. How are these things like each other? Who is to say? Can't you just hear the early readers/hearers of Agur's wisdom gathering around and saying, "Well, let me tell you the story of X"? Life goes on and dinumeratio makes it all possible.
I can do no better than to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1850 sonnet:
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways./ I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight/ For the ends of Being and ideal Grace./ I love thee to the level of everyday's/ Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight./ I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;/ I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise./ I love thee with the passion put to use/ In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith./ I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/ With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death."
The immense, almost Shakespearean power, of her language is especially captured in her "enumerations" in the lines beginning "I love thee with the passion put to use/ In my old griefs, and with my chilhood's faith." She links love and loss in ways that immediately cut into our hearts. In her "old griefs" there was passion--passion in the tears, the sense of loss, the feeling of confinement and utter abandonment, the sense that life was irretrievably altered for the worse. Yet, that passion still lives and now, dipped in the goblet of grief, brings a most sublime savor and most incredible energy. Her love seemed to perish when she lost her "saints" from the past, but it is still there, intact and flowing, reaching out to embrace another. It is enduring, constant, life-giving.
Dinumeratio/enumeratio is thus one of the most powerful rhetorical devices to focus the mind or inspire the heart. But we can only learn to enumerate properly when we have made a reality our own. We need to feel it in our depths, to listen to and then refine the characterizations of others in order to provide our unique "take" on the world through it. Hearers remember it. People are convinced or, at least, stimulated to think. We are refreshed because we know, even if only for one shining moment, that we have learned something basic about the nature of life.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long